Winifred Sharp’s Brand of Justice
Her parents were dynamic civic leaders, but Winifred Sharp still had to chart her own, sometimes difficult course as a woman entering the legal profession in the early 1960s. She earned her law degree at Stanford and went to work in her father’s Orlando law firm, practicing property and family law among other specialties. In 1979, then-Governor Bob Graham appointed Sharp to the newly created Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal. Sharp, 72, retired in 2006 and today is a trustee of the Winifred Johnson Clive Foundation, which awards grants to various nonprofit groups that focus on children, arts, education and wildlife conservation. She and her husband, Joel Sharp, have four daughters.
It was odd, but in my freshman year at Vassar I was one of about 15 people selected to be interviewed by a psychiatrist who wanted to study our plans and goals and how we would change. He asked what I wanted to do after I graduated and I said, “Well, I think I’d like to have a family and have a career.”
“Oh…” he said. “You really can’t do that. You have to make a choice.” Huh? I said, “I don’t think so.” It was so obvious to him that women had to pick one or the other. But it was also about that time that my mom [Beth Johnson] was heavily into politics. She had already been elected to the House and later became Florida’s first woman senator. I saw how she handled it and maybe that was another reason I wasn’t so intimidated. She did a good job, a really good job. In fact, both my parents were big leaders in the community.
During World War II, my dad [George Johnson II] enlisted and started a school for radar controllers at the Orlando Army Air Base. He was eventually sent to Fresno, Calif., with an Army Air Corps squadron. My mom, twin sister, younger brother and I took a train across the country to be with him for about a year and a half until he shipped out to North Africa, and then we had to come home to Orlando. It was very hard. We didn’t know if we’d get enough gasoline for the drive back, and there weren’t enough tires available, either. So we teamed up with another family whose father also had shipped out, and we convoyed across the country. Two moms, five kids, one nursemaid and a cat—a cat that ruined the car. It was a disaster. An endless ride.
After my dad came home and resumed his law practice, we lived on Lake Concord and played in the yard, climbed orange trees and rode bicycles. Meanwhile my mom became very involved in the community, with the PTA and Planning and Zoning and the League of Women Voters. And my dad was busy with all sorts of projects, including starting the Orlando Housing Authority, a couple of banks, the Orlando Museum of Art, and becoming chairman of the school board. The schools were segregated and in awful shape, and there was a big bond issue which included building good schools for the black community. The big question was where to put Jones High, and the mayor and county commissioners weren’t giving anyone any help. There was such a furor because my dad stuck to his guns and said they were going to build a high school equal in quality to the schools being built for white kids, and in a proper location—which was in a place many white people didn’t like. In a way it was like To Kill a Mockingbird because there were crosses burned in our yard. But our parents protected us. They didn’t really let us know about the death threats against my dad.
Later we attended Orlando High School during its last year, and we would have gone on to Edgewater. But Mom and Dad said we were getting distracted by sororities and boys and they didn’t think we would make it into an Ivy League college. They were probably right. My sister and I were shipped out to Abbot Academy, a girl’s prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, and we had to work very hard because we really were quite far behind.
It was pretty traumatic. We spent two fairly miserable years there, although we did get a splendid education. And we did meet some nice Andover boys, which made life more pleasant—although we couldn’t talk to them. Miss Kersey, who was the headmistress—or head warden—didn’t want her girls to have a relationship with the boys. She’d organize tea dances where we could dance with them, but we couldn’t really talk to them or write them or see them without her supervision.
I was accepted at a number of colleges, but both my sister and I ended up going to Vassar. Why? Mom graduated from Vassar. And since our parents were committed to our education, they sent us an allowance so we wouldn’t have to work. But it was pretty frugal living. I had an old bicycle I rode around campus, but there was nothing extravagant about it at all.
I was majoring in history and English and had a brilliant professor who taught a course in constitutional law. And that’s when I became really enthusiastic about these concepts of freedoms and the structure of our government. I saw law as a way of upholding those ideals and I still believe that. If you understand history and understand how this country was built, law was an integral part of that and it holds this country together.
My counselor suggested that I apply for law school. I did and was accepted at Harvard, Columbia and the University of Virginia, and Vassar gave me a scholarship. I chose UVA because I was sick and tired of cold weather and I thought I’d come back and practice law in the South. This was about 1958-1959 and I didn’t really like the atmosphere at UVA. It was very chauvinistic. I don’t think they had a clue at all. When I interviewed there, the dean said, “Your LSAT scores are high enough to admit you, but we don’t admit many women…You’re just here to get married.” I said, “No, I’m here to become a lawyer.”
The 200 women there lived in dorms that were closely guarded; no men permitted. My father wasn’t even able to carry my bags up to my room. Tradition was that after the first semester, the top students would be invited to be on the law review. But since they were admitting women who were very smart, it turned out they would have to ask a couple of women to be on the review. So they changed the rules. It was really a stultifying atmosphere for women.
I finished the year and then transferred to Stanford Law School and loved it. I intended to stay there and maybe practice but that’s when I met my husband. After we got married and worked in Washington, D.C., and then New York, my dad invited us to work with him at his firm.
I never doubted I could achieve what I have. Maybe that’s what Mom and Dad gave me. They set a good example. Even when I ran into difficulty getting a job, I never doubted I could be a fine lawyer. I really was a stubborn cuss. I wanted to do it, and didn’t see any reason I couldn’t. Being told I shouldn’t do it or couldn’t do it by people at Vassar—and later on—by some lawyers and law professors made me mad.
And I proved them wrong.