Alice S. Petluck was one of the earliest women legal pioneers. An immigrant from Russia, she became one of the first women in the United States to attend law school and to practice in New York. She was a prominent New York social reformer, who, through her example, was able to open the door for generations of future female lawyers.
Alice Serber Petluck was born on July 23, 1873, in Bar, Russia. One of at least three sisters, she immigrated to the United States in 1892 at nineteen. Remarkably, although she spoke no English at the time of her arrival, she graduated from New York University Law School a mere six years later. For the most part, the late 1800s were a time of widespread opposition to women attending law school, and the majority of law schools adopted formal measures to keep them out. New York University was one of the few law schools in the country to admit women. Alice Serber was one of only six women in her class.
After graduation, she married Dr. Joseph Petluck, a physician. In 1918, she became president of the Mothers Welfare League of the Bronx, an organization that addressed the needs of largely poor women and children in the Bronx. As president, Petluck was instrumental in establishing an alimony bureau, which operated through New York’s magistrate courts to obtain payments for families with absent husbands. Through her work with the league, Petluck became concerned with the problem of juvenile delinquency. She advocated an increase in the number of home visits by visiting teachers to troubled families so that the teachers could work with families to prevent future occurrences. The league also operated as an employment bureau for young women during the Depression.
Alice Petluck was one of the first women lawyers to practice in the Federal District Court in the Southern District of New York and is believed to be the first woman lawyer to argue a case in New York’s intermediate court of appeals. In 1928, Petluck was refused admittance to the Bronx Bar Association because she was a woman. In response, she and other women lawyers created the Bronx Women’s Bar Association. Petluck served as a director of the association and was chair of its grievance committee at her death.
Petluck served her community in a number of other ways. She was president of the Parents Association of Junior School 55 in the Bronx, which was largely responsible for establishing the school’s first dental clinic in 1923. She was also active in numerous Jewish causes, such as the Women’s American ORT, AMIT (Mizrachi Women’s Organization of America) , the Federation of Jewish Women’s Organizations, the Sisterhood of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, and Ebra, Inc. Her work in the community was so well respected that a 1931 newspaper poll in the Bronx named her one of the borough’s twenty leading citizens.
The Petlucks had three children, all lawyers: Charles A. Petluck, who served in the state attorney general’s office; Ann Poses, an assistant executive director of the United Service for New Americans; and Robert Petluck, a principal in the Bronx.
Alice Petluck broke with convention by creating a career for herself at a time when most women were relegated to the household. A civic leader and innovator, she used her training to improve the lot of women and children.
She died on December 4, 1953, at age eighty.
AJYB 56 (1956): 571; NYTimes, December 30, 1928; Obituary. NYTimes, December 11, 1953, 31:2; “One Hundred Years of Women at NYU School of Law.” Centennial materials, NYU Law School, 1992; “Restless Women: The Pioneering Alumnae of New York University School of Law.” 66 NYU Law Review 1996 (1991).
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Levine, Laura J.. "Alice S. Petluck." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 10, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/petluck-alice-s>.