Law’s Leading Ladies

Throughout American history, men have made their best efforts to keep women from practicing in the field of law. Although women have faced similar dilemmas in their efforts to enter other professions, their struggle to break through the barriers of the legal profession has been one of the most challenging pursuits.

This is not very surprising given the law’s close relationship with power within our society. Power has almost always been exerted over women by men in most cultures and the possibility of women working with the law directly challenged this structure. The active effort to keep women out of the profession was born from the fear that their presence in it would change the law that for so long had denied them a separate, legal existence from their husbands. Due to these fears not only did women have to fight long and hard to gain entry into law schools, but they also had to struggle to be able to practice law once they became educated lawyers.

220px-MargaretBrent.gifThe initial path for women to enter the field of law in the United States was paved by an unmarried woman named Margaret Brent. In 1638 she left England, settled in Maryland and was granted large sums of land by her powerful cousin, Lord Baltimore. However, when Lord Baltimore’s brother and governor of the colony, Leonard Calvert, unfairly promised the land to a group of soldiers Margaret rose to defend the land for which she was rightfully attorney in court. She was ultimately involved in approximately 100 court cases but was never formally educated in law due to the restriction on women from entering any law school or state bar associations at the time. Nonetheless, she is remembered for being the first woman to appear in the courts of Colonial America. Other than Brent, there is little evidence of women in law until the mid-1800s.

220px-Arabella_mansfield.jpgThe first woman to become a licensed attorney in the United States was Arabella Mansfield. Women were still not allowed to attend law school at the time. Nonetheless, Mansfield studied law at her brother’s legal practice in hopes of passing the Iowa bar exam. However, only men over the age of 21 were allowed to receive a law license in Iowa. She challenged this law before Judge Francis Springer, a women’s rights activist, and passed the bar exam. In 1869 she became the first woman admitted to practice law not only in Iowa but in the United States. Ultimately, she decided not to practice law and instead dedicated her life to the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

Washington University in St Louis, Missouri was the first institution to admit a female student to their law program. In 1869, Lemma Barkeloo became the nation’s first female law student. Barkeloo had previously applied to the Law schools of Columbia and Harvard but was rejected from attending both institutions. However she was accepted into Washington University in 1869 and in the course of a year she became the first female attorney in the state. She went on to work for St. Louisan Lucian Eaton’s private practice and became the first woman to try a case in the courts of America. Sadly, her career in law was short-lived. Soon after the trial, she fell ill with typhoid limiting her career to a mere 5 months.

220px-Drawing_of_Charlotte_E_Ray.jpgThe first African American woman to gain title as an attorney of the United States was Charlotte E Ray. She graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1872 and quite sensibly applied for the District of Columbia Bar membership under the name C. E. Ray as a means to disguise her gender. Ray became one of the first women to be admitted to the D. C. Bar and went on to open up her own law practice, attracting clients through a newspaper run by Frederick Douglass, a notable leader of the abolitionist movement. Unfortunately, she could not attract enough clients to maintain her practice due to the widespread prejudice against her during that time.

220px-Clara_Shortridge_Foltz.jpgClara Shortridge Foltz was the first female lawyer on the Pacific coast, specifically in California. After she was abandoned by her husband she began studying law with her father. In 1878 she passed the California Bar after she persuaded California legislature to pass her “Women Lawyer’s Bill”, officially allowing women to practice law in California by replacing “white male” with the word “person”. When she was denied admission to Hastings College of  Law, she argued her case before the Supreme Court and won admission. She was ultimately very influential in reforming the criminal justice system and prison system, often regarded as the creator of the prison parole system as well as the office of public defender. Furthermore, she became the first female deputy district attorney in the United States when she was appointed to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office in 1910 .

Without the actions of these brave women who were willing to challenge the structure of education and defend the rights they were entitled to, women may not be working in the field of law today. Thanks to these women and countless others, about 50% of current law school graduates in the United States are women. However, despite this accomplishment, women still struggle to acquire successful careers at law firms today. The percentage of female law school graduates working at law firms remains below 35% while their share of equity partnerships is even worse at about 20%. Women face pay disparity and harassment in their positions at most law firms. Thankfully there has been a rise in gender bias lawsuits against many major firms shedding light on the injustices that women still face in the field today and serving to correct these gender disparities.


Ashica Hari, Women’s Museum of California Intern

You can learn more about the history of women lawyers in the Women’s Museum of California’s current exhibit, Women in Law.

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