Florence K. Murray - one of but a handful of women to serve as a justice on a state supreme court in the United States - has taken the low-key road to success. The soft-spoken, matter-of-fact, motherly New Englander quietly worked her way up Rhode Island's judicial ladder to her present elevated position. And she has no doubts other women can do the same.
One word sums up Justice Murray's prognosis on present and future opportunities for women in the judiciary: Excellent. She is well aware of longstanding sex prejudices within the legal profession. But she says it isn't any worse among barristers or jurists than in other areas. And it is fast breaking down.
The evidence? Scores of women judges - some of them youthful - are being appointed by governors across the nation; women are rushing to law school in unprecedented numbers. Current surveys show one-third of enrollees are now female; and the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court of the United States has served to spur aspirations of other women.
While the overall number of women donning the black robes of the court is still relatively small, Justice Murray insists it will significantly increase as women lawyers themselves raise their sights. ''There's a tendency among women who are well educated to feel that they have to qualify,'' Justice Murray explains. ''Most women feel that they have to come with a degree of experience before they will offer themselves for a judicial position . . . as opposed to a male attitude, which is: Now I'm a lawyer; I'm available any time to be a judge.''
In addition to broadening their own ambitions, what can women lawyers do to better position themselves for judgeships? Justice Murray sees two key efforts: changing men's attitudes; and behind-the-scenes lobbying.
The former is already happening as stereotypes of women break down in society , she says. As lawyers' wives go out in the work world and their daughters (it used to be only sons) join the law world, Justice Murray explains, the ''ignorance'' is dispelled.
In terms of women in the law lobbying to enhance their own professional opportunities, Justice Murray says the five-year-old Women Judges Association is addressing such matters. Further, an informal network of women in the profession to share ideas and information is being formed, which should give impetus to judicial appointments.
Is there a special dimension that a woman judge can bring to the court - and the cause of justice?
Although Justice Murray stresses that professional and personal qualifications should transcend male or female considerations in judicial appointments, she does allow that women tend to have a special sensitivity in some matters. For example, she cites cases that deal with family and children. ''That's an area in which women have had greater immersion for a longer period of time,'' she notes. However, she insists that this could easily change as the professional and family roles of men and women continue to evolve.
Justice Murray herself is far from the product of the sexual revolution. A native Rhode Islander and daughter of a career civil service employee, she attended Syracuse University, intent on the life of a schoolteacher. But jobs were hard to find in the postdepression era. Encouraged by a favorite professor, she ended up in law school at Boston University.
Later, with a BU law degree in hand, she applied for and received a commission in the Army. After five years of military service she returned to Rhode Island in 1948, filed jointly for the state Senate and local school committee, and won both posts. Mrs. Murray's eight-year political career led to her appointment as Rhode Island's first woman superior court judge. She later became presiding justice of that court. Over two decades later, she again became a judicial pioneer with her elevation to justice of the state Supreme Court.
The Rhode Island jurist has a long record of judicial accomplishments, which have led not only to her present post but to distinction as secretary of the American Bar Association's National Conference of State Court Judges and head of the National Judicial College board of directors.
Justice Murray's husband, Paul, is a lawyer and former federal prosecutor. They have one son. Although in what many consider the retirement-age category, Justice Murray does not shut off possible new career opportunities - perhaps even a try for the US Senate.
''I close no doors,'' she says. ''I follow my own suggestion to young people: The only limitations are the ones you put on yourselves.''