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Esther Beckhoff
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Twenty-nine years after Mary Philbrook became the first woman lawyer in New Jersey and four years after women were allowed to vote, Esther Beckhoff of Perth Amboy signed the rolls in 1924 as the first woman attorney in Middlesex County.


Esther was born in Perth Amboy. As a child, she lived at 128 Market Street with her parents and three younger siblings, Harry, Benjamin, and Cecilia. Her father owned a local hardware store, and Esther attended Perth Amboy Grammar School and graduated from that city’s High School, where she was listed in 1933 along with David T. Wilentz, who graduated three years before Esther, as one of the school’s distinguished alumni.


After graduating from Normal School, a predecessor of Trenton State College, Esther began work as a teacher, one of the then traditional occupations for women in the 1920’s. She taught 4th grade for over five years when, at the age of 22, she decided to pursue a career path that, at the time, was dominated by men. Esther wanted to become a lawyer.


In the early 1900’s, most men did not approve of or encourage women who wished to pursue an interest in the law. They had a strong belief in the "proper place” for women. In fact, in 1900, the New Jersey Legislature passed a constitutional amendment permitting horse racing and the voters, all men, approved it, but defeated the right of women to vote just for school trustees.


While Esther continued to teach, she attended evening classes at New Jersey Law School, a predecessor of Rutgers, graduating in June 1923.   Besides passing the bar examination and scrutiny by the Middlesex County Character and Fitness Committee, she also had to serve a clerkship for admission into the legal profession. So Esther clerked part-time over several summers for Thomas Brown, a well-known Perth Amboy Lawyer. Dr. Francis Henry and Leo Goldberger, a Perth Amboy lawyer, certified her character to the committee and she took the bar examination as soon as she became eligible. She passed the exam, successfully surmounted all of the other hurdles and was admitted to the New Jersey Bar in February 1924.


This five-foot fiery red head began her law practice from her home in Perth Amboy, and then from her office at 215 Raritan Building in Perth Amboy. Although her practice included many divorce and child custody matters, for many years the standard practice for most women lawyers, she was also very proud to have been retained by and to have represented on an ongoing basis Tydol Oil Company. In support of this client, she participated in the location and establishment of many gas stations in Middlesex and Monmouth County. In 1929 Esther represented a landlord in a suit for unpaid rent for an apartment in Brooklyn leased by the defendant, who was represented by Harry Spitzer. The case was reported at 8 N.J. Misc. 22 and reflects that although Mr. Spitzer appealed to three judges of the then Supreme Court, Esther obtained a per curiam and quite perfunctory affirmance for the landlord.


When practicing in Perth Amboy and throughout her life, she became known as an extremely friendly and outgoing person who had an active and ongoing interest in education, mediation, foreign relations, and politics. She always bought her Buicks from Polkowitz Buick, and was friendly with Pop Flynn, the mayor of Perth Amboy, and David Wilentz, whom she knew from high school and whom she later referred to as the "Lord High Executioner of the Democratic Party.”


In 1934, the Perth Amboy Post recognized that "few businesses or professional women have combined personal charm of manner and effectiveness of service as successfully as Miss Esther Beckhoff, . . . the first woman lawyer in Middlesex County, and . . . at the present time the only woman practicing.” The Post noted that Esther was "[k]eenly concerned with all that occurs, her interests vary[ing] from such local problems as advanced education for worthy students to questions regarding international peace and friendship. She is especially interested in the Perth Amboy [High School] Student Loan Fund, of which she has been president for the past four years. By means of student loans, many deserving students who could not have gone to college otherwise have been enabled to do so.”


She spoke at a New York conference in the Hotel Astor involving women interested in foreign relations and was treasurer of the New Jersey Business and Professional Woman’s Club. She was sent by the Club as a State representative to the National Conference on Cause and Cure of War at Washington D.C., where she advanced her firm belief in the ability of humans to arbitrate disputes.


In 1936, Esther married Doctor Abraham M. Balter, who was a specialist in chest diseases. They honeymooned in Bermuda, and in 1939 had one son, Paul. We are not privy to whatever conversations Esther and Abraham may have had after the marriage and birth of her son, but for whatever reason, by 1940, Esther had closed her Perth Amboy practice and though she lived until 1980, she never practiced law again.


Esther and her young son followed Abraham as his career took him through the Second World War and to several Veterans’ Affairs hospitals in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New Jersey. The Balter family always lived on the grounds of the VA hospitals at which Abraham worked. Esther was extremely proud of her husband’s fellowship in the American College of Physicians. After Abraham retired in 1974, the family moved to East Orange and rented a modest apartment on Harrison Street where Esther was living at the time of her death.


Harry, Esther’s brother, had a daughter who died in her sixties. None of Esther’s other siblings had children who survived to adulthood. Esther’s son Paul became a physician specializing in nephrology and married Susan who is a physician and attorney. They live in Illinois and have three daughters, Sharon, a physician; Nancy, a teacher; and Barbara, a lawyer. Nancy recently gave birth to a son who would have been Esther’s great-grandchild.

Though she never practiced law again, and became "super mom,” cooking, cleaning, balancing the checkbook and not allowing her husband to lift a finger in the house, Esther’s personality and interests remained constant throughout her life. Her son Paul remembers, for example, a revealing and amusing incident about his mother’s personality. Esther was a very fast driver who would get speeding tickets from time to time. When the family was living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Esther received a speeding ticket and gave it to one of her friends, the Chief Judge of the Common Pleas Court, so that he could "take care of it like we used to do [when she practiced] in Middlesex County.” A few years later, the judge confessed to Esther that he had paid the ticket, because they did not have the same colorful traditions as the ones Esther remembered.


When Susan, Paul’s wife, was in law school she took her mother-in-law to class one day. Susan warned her of a particularly malicious professor who had a habit of calling on guests. True to form the professor called on Esther and attempted to ridicule her as law professors sometimes do. "When I was practicing law,” she replied, "you were in diapers, so pick on someone your own size.” According to Susan, the professor was so stunned he never again called on any other class guest.


Susan remembers her mother-in-law as "not having an enemy on the street.” She would walk up to complete strangers and engage them in conversation at anytime and anyplace. "She was a great friendly talker, a voracious reader, with broad interests, who today probably would have been a politician.” She was extremely liberal, loved opera, classical music and was an avid supporter of Adlai Stevenson. After living on the grounds of all those VA Hospitals and seeing the medical care that was dispensed to veterans, she did not understand why all Americans did not have health care, and she became an early proponent of National Health care.


It is difficult not to regret Esther Beckhoff’s withdrawal from the legal profession. Had she continued with or re-entered the profession, we will never know what contributions and personal successes would have followed. In any event, this pioneering woman undoubtedly made it easier for many women after her and certainly for her progeny to pursue their ambitions.


By 1929, five years after Esther began her law practice in Perth Amboy, the Middlesex County Bar included over one hundred men but only six women. Besides Esther, these women were Bessie Duff (admitted Oct. 1926); Aldona Leszcynski, who became Aldona Appleton (admitted Oct. 1927); Elizabeth H. Harding (admitted March 1925); Eva H. Reda (admitted Oct. 1927); and Esther Levy (admitted Oct. 1924). Today, over 590 women are practicing in virtually every town in Middlesex County. Of the 1,095 members of the County Bar Association, 297 are women.


* I would like to thank the following persons and entities for helping with the research of this article. All of the facts and data that accurately reveal Esther Beckhoff Balter are attributable to them. If there are any mistakes in the account of this pioneering woman’s life, however, they are solely mine. Thank you, Paul and Susan Balter, Paul Axel-Lute, Joan Meister, Maureen O’Rourke, Helen Larkin, Stephen Townsend, the Supreme Court of New Jersey, Linda Garbaccio, Patricia Martin, Betty Agin, James Amemasor, the Perth Amboy Public Library, the Perth Amboy Public Schools, William Stratton, Nathan Witkin, Robert Goldsmith, Henry Gottlieb, the New Jersey Historical Society, Morris Brown, the Star Ledger, the New York Times, Jonathan Cowles, and the Middlesex County Bar Association.


- Hon. Steven Lefelt, JAD (Ret.)

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