Six years ago, in a feature article in a University of Connecticut alumni publication, Ethel Sorokin spoke of her days at UConn law school in the early 1950s. "There were four women and 65 men in my class," recalled Sorokin, the first female editor of the school's Law Review. "By my second year, only two women were left."
There were no women on the faculty. But if Sorokin needed a female role model, she could look to an aunt, who was Hartford's first woman allergist, and a mother who, Sorokin said, "told me that every woman should have a profession, even if she doesn't use it."
But Ethel Sorokin did use her profession. Earlier this month, following her death at age 84, Connecticut lawyers recalled her pioneering work as a female attorney and in First Amendment law. After graduating from law school in 1953, Sorokin went on to lead a firm with her late husband, Milton. Together, they founded the Center for First Amendment Rights in Hartford to promote awareness of constitutional rights.
"She saw the law as an instrument to achieve a client's objectives; she was a very effective writer of legal advocacy," said Rick Robinson, a business litigator with Pullman & Comley who got his start with Sorokin & Sorokin. "I learned a lot from her. I learned about the necessity of utter devotion to clients."
Word of Sorokin's death came as a surprise for those who worked with her, including Don Noel, the immediate past chair of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. When Noel called Sorokin to discuss an upcoming meeting two weeks ago, he was told she had died.
"Ethel was a great addition to the community and her passing is a great loss," said Noel, a retired columnist for the Hartford Courant who most recently served on the ACLU's education committee with Sorokin. "She was absolutely determined that people should recognize the importance of civil liberties and particularly that young people recognize that importance."
Ethel Silver grew up in West Hartford and graduated in 1950 from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a women's-only school at that point. "The first thing I learned at Vassar was that a woman can do anything she wants," she once said.
Upon returning to Connecticut, she met Milton Sorokin, who proposed to her after just 10 dates. Milton was studying at UConn law school at the time, and he encouraged his bride to do the same. Although the law was an unusual career choice for a woman in the early 1950s, Ethel was more than up to the task, graduating with honors.
After three years working for a small Hartford firm, Ethel and Milton formed Sorokin & Sorokin. They combined her interests and skills in family law, estates and trusts and media law with his interest in corporate law.
"I was pregnant with our second child when we started the firm, but I managed to get my work done, even if it meant writing briefs at the kitchen table," Ethel Sorokin told the UConn publication. "I never felt that being a woman held me back."