First in Their Field: Clara Shortridge Foltz

“No one should buy justice in a land that boasts that justice is free

The first woman to join the California Bar, the first person to author a bill separating juvenile and adult offenders in California’s prisons, and one of the first people in the United States to argue for a public defender’s office.

Noted as a “leader of woman suffrage on the Pacific Coast,” Foltz has been accredited founder and champion of the public defender system, this mother of five was the first female deputy district attorney.

A progressive, scholarly thinker, gifted at promoting herself and her beliefs, she fought for her causes utilizing the power of the courtroom and the press.

With only three years of formal education under her belt, Clara Foltz was determined to become the apprentice of a San Jose attorney after divorcing her husband in 1877. The attorney’s denial and amendment to the California Code of Procedure limiting membership in the legal profession to white males spurred Flotz to make some changes. Clara fought alongside Laura de Force Gordon to pass the Woman Lawyer’s Act in 1878, a milestone in the history of women’s professional progress.

Foltz was sworn in as the first female attorney on the Pacific Coast in 1878, but denied access to UC Hasting’s College of Law. Foltz and Gordon sued the board for sexual prejudice, demanding the right to study law. After several months and an appeal, the women gained the right to attend law school, paving the way for future generations to study law.

In 1879 Clara became the first female clerk to the California Assembly Judiciary Committee. Flotz practiced law throughout the U.S., while also rising in the suffrage movement’s leadership to president of the California Woman Suffrage Association at the age of thirty-one. Clara founded the Votes for Women Club in 1911 helping to pass the 19th Amendment. Newspapers lauded Clara as the “leader of woman suffrage on the Pacific Coast.”

Flotz did not only advocate women’s rights. Witnessing unfair prosecution, conviction of the innocent, and extensive abuse of justice by most district attorneys who were “sacrificing truth and objectivity to win” Foltz fought from the 1890s until 1921 for changes in California legislature. Clara deservedly counted her creation of the public defender system among her major legislative achievements.


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