America’s First Women in Law
We would like to take you on a journey back in time to meet some of America’s first women in law, learning about their stories, their struggles, and their triumphs.
Setting the Stage
How Society Viewed Women
In the 1800s, women were denied entry into the legal profession simply due to their gender. The world was divided into two spheres, one in which men ruled the public stage and women’s roles revolved around the home.
Women were regarded as “morally superior beings whose social role mandated confinement to domestic duties, less they be contaminated by the realities of the brutal marketplace.”1
This perception was reinforced by the legal doctrine of coverture, which was the common law of England for centuries. The husband protected his wife in exchange for total control of her assets, including her wages, property and children.
Onto this stage walked strong, pioneer women like Arabella Mansfield, Ada Kepley and Charlotte Ray. Each chose to break the rules and become lawyers, and they did it with education, eloquence and determination.
1Audrey Wolfson Latourette, “Sex Discrimination in the Legal Profession: Historical & Contemporary Perspectives,” Valparaiso University Law School, Summer 2005.
America’s First Female Attorney
Arabella Mansfield (1846 – 1911), was born Belle Aurelia Babb on a family farm in Des Moines, Iowa. With so many men absent fighting in the Civil War, to keep their educational institutions running, schools began admitting more women as students and teachers.
Mansfield graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College as valedictorian in 1866. She took a teaching position at Simpson College, making her one of America’s first female college professors. While at Simpson, Arabella studied law in her brother’s practice, and although the Iowa bar exam was limited to “white male persons,” she passed the exam with high marks in 1869.
A court ruled, “the affirmative declaration that male persons may be admitted, is not an implied denial to the right of females.” Judge Francis Springer officially certified Arabella at the Henry County Courthouse, making her the first licensed female attorney in the U.S. Shortly afterwards, Iowa changed its statute and became the first state to allow women to practice law.
Arabella never pursued legal practice. Instead she spent her professional life teaching and was active in the women's suffrage movement, where she worked with Susan B. Anthony. Later she would become one of the first U.S. female college administrators at DePauw University.
Arabella Mansfield died at age 65, nine years before women obtained the right to vote. She was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1980. The Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys established the Arabella Mansfield Award in 2002 to recognize outstanding women lawyers in Iowa.
First Woman to Graduate Law School
Ada Kepley (1847 – 1925), born Ada Harriet Miser, grew up in Effingham, Ohio, where her parents ran a hotel and her mother had a bookstore. Ada married attorney Henry B. Kepley in 1867 and became his legal assistant, learning the law from him.
Encouraged by her husband to study law and join him in his practice, Kepley attended Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, graduating with honors in 1870, making her the first woman to graduate from law school in the U.S.
After graduation, Kepley was denied a license to practice law. Her husband helped her challenge this ruling by drafting a bill forbidding sexual discrimination in the ‘learned professions.’ Her husband’s bill was passed and became law in 1872, but his wife did not apply for and receive her license until 1881.
“It seems I was the first woman to graduate from a law school in America, which boasted to the rest of the world to be ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.’ Yet they gave no freedom to women. I work as hard as a man, I earn money like a man, and am robbed as a woman! I have no voice in anything or in saying how my money, which I have earned, shall be spent. The men of Illinois run their hands in my pockets, take my hard-earned money, and say impertinently, “What are you going to do about it?”2
Though she worked alongside her husband in his law office, Ada’s legacy was not in the practice of law, but in the support of social reforms, particularly the temperance movement and women’s suffrage. There are no memorials to Ada. She is buried next to her husband Henry in her hometown of Effingham.
2Margaret MacLean, “Civil War Women: Women of the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras 1849-1877,” 2018.
First African American Woman Lawyer
Charlotte E. Fraim (1850 – 1911), born Charlotte E. Ray, enrolled in Howard University’s Law School under the name C. E. Ray to disguise her gender. In 1872, Ray became the first woman to graduate from Howard’s School of Law, and the first African American woman in the U.S. to receive a law degree.
Ray continued to break new ground for women and African Americans by becoming one of the first women admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia, which had recently removed the word ‘male’ from its requirements.
Ray opened her own law office in Washington, DC and began an independent practice of commercial law in 1872. To attract clients, she advertised in a newspaper called The New National Era and Citizen owned by Frederick Douglass.
Ray only practiced law for a few years. Regardless of her oratory skills, legal knowledge, and expertise, as an African American and a woman, it was difficult to attract enough clients to maintain an active practice. Racial and gender discrimination forced her to close her office.
In 1879, Ray returned to her hometown of New York City where she worked as a teacher in the Brooklyn public schools. Though she only practiced law for a few years, Ray demonstrated that African American women could excel in the field of law, and her achievements helped inspire others.
Since 1989, the Greater Washington Area Chapter of the Women Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association annually recognizes a local outstanding African American female lawyer with the Charlotte E. Ray Award.
California's First Woman Lawyer
Clara Foltz (1849 - 1934), born Carrie Shortridge in Lafayette, Indiana, moved with her husband to San Jose in 1872. In 1876, Foltz’s husband left her and her five children. To support her family, Foltz began studying law in the office of a local judge and giving public lectures on women’s suffrage.
When Foltz tried to take the California bar exam, she discovered only white males were eligible to become members of the bar. She authored a bill, known as the "Woman Lawyer Bill," which replaced "white male" with "person.” In 1878, Foltz passed the examination and became the first woman admitted to the California Bar and the first female lawyer on the entire west coast of the U.S.
Clara Foltz is famous for many firsts. She was the first woman in California:
- Admitted to the Hastings College of Law (1879),
- To serve as clerk for the State Assembly's Judiciary Committee (1880),
- Licensed as a notary public (1891),
- Named director of a major bank (1905),
- Appointed to the State Board of Corrections (1910),
- Appointed Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles (1911),
- To establish a Women Lawyer’s Club in Los Angeles (1918),
- Run for Governor of California, at the age of 81 (1930).
Foltz’s greatest achievement was to conceive of the idea of a public defender. She presented the idea as the representative of the California State Bar at the National Congress of Jurisprudence and Law Reform held at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Foltz’s law review articles on the subject argued convincingly that the government should pay for the defense of the criminally accused. She lobbied for the idea in 32 states, and won a clear success in California, which passed the Foltz Defender Bill in 1921.
First Woman to Argue a Case Before the U.S. Supreme Court
Belva Ann Lockwood (1830 – 1917), born Belva Ann Bennett, was teaching at her local elementary school in Royalton, New York, by the time she was age 14. By the time she was 27, she had become the headmistress of Lockport Union School, where she received half the salary of her male teachers.
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Lockwood decided to pursue a career in the law. After she completed her studies in 1873, George Washington University Law School was unwilling to grant a diploma to a woman. Unable to gain admittance to the bar, she wrote a letter to President Ulysses S. Grant, who served as a board member at the law school, who interceded on her behalf.
In 1876, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to admit Lockwood to its bar, stating, "none but men are permitted to practice before [us] as attorneys and counselors." Lockwood drafted an anti-discrimination bill to have the same access to the bar as male colleagues, which Congress passed in 1879, allowing all qualified women attorneys to practice in any federal court.
Lockwood became the first woman member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar, sworn in amidst "a bating of breath and craning of necks."2 In 1880, she argued a case, Kaiser v. Stickney, before the high court, the first woman lawyer to do so.
In 1906, Lockwood represented the Eastern Cherokee regarding money owed to them by the U.S. government. In one of her most famous cases, she made a successful argument before the U.S. Supreme Court and won a $5 million settlement for the Cherokee people.
2Margaret MacLean, “Civil War Women: Women of the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras 1849-1877,” 2018.
Other Famous First Ladies in U.S. Law
Lyda Conley (1902)
First Native American (Wyandot) woman lawyer in the U.S. (1902) and first to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court (1909).
Catherine Waugh McCulloch (1907)
First woman lawyer elected as a Justice of the Peace.
Florence E. Allen (1920)
The first woman elected a Common Pleas Judge (1920), first elected to a state Supreme Court (1922) and first federal appellate judge, appointed to the Sixth Circuit by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1934).
Florence King (1923)
The first woman to win a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jane Bolin (1931)
First African American female to graduate from Yale Law School (1931), first to join the New York City Bar Association (1932), and the first to serve as judge in the U.S. (1939).
Elizabeth K. Ohi (1937)
First Asian American female attorney in the U.S.
Lucile Lomen (1944)
First female to serve as a law clerk to a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Jewel Stadford Lafontant (1946)
First African American woman lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lorna E. Lockwood (1965)
First woman appointed Chief Justice of a state Supreme Court (Arizona).
Mary C. Morgan (1981)
First openly LGBT attorney to become a judge in the U.S.
Janet Reno (1993)
First woman lawyer to become U.S. Attorney General.
Roberta Cooper Ramo (1995)
First woman to serve as the President of the American Bar Association.
Leah Ward Sears (2005)
First African American woman to serve as a Chief Justice of a State Supreme Court (Georgia).
Sonia Sotomayor (2009)
First Latina woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court
Paulette Brown (2014)
First African American woman to serve as the President of the American Bar Association.
Women of the U.S. Supreme Court
Sandra Day O’Connor
First Woman U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor (b. 1930) obtained her law degree from Stanford Law School in 1952 where she graduated third in her class. After graduation, O'Connor found employment as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California, after she offered to work for no salary.
O'Connor served as assistant Attorney General of Arizona from 1965 to 1969. She served as an Arizona Republican senator from 1969 to 1974 and in 1973 became the first woman to serve as a state Majority Leader.
O’Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 where she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 99-0. During her tenure on the court, O’Connor was considered with Justice Anthony Kennedy a decisive swing vote in the Court’s decisions.
She parted with the conservative majority in a series of rulings, signaling a reluctance to support any decision that would deny women the right to choose a safe and legal abortion. O’Connor served on the high court until her retirement in 2006.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
First Jewish Woman on the U.S. Supreme Court
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933) enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1956, where she was one of 9 women in a class of 500 men. When her husband took a job in NYC, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, where she became the first woman to be on two major law reviews; the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review. She graduated tied for first in her class in 1959.
Ginsburg co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972 and in 1973 became the ACLU's general counsel. Ginsburg participated in over 300 gender discrimination cases, arguing six before the Supreme Court, winning five.
Ginsburg was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. She is the second female justice of four to be confirmed to the court, along with Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Ginsburg’s body of work is credited with making significant legal advances for women under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Collectively Ginsburg's legal victories discouraged legislatures from treating women and men differently under the law.
The March Goes On
Paving the Way for Future Generations
After women received the right to vote in 1920, all States admitted women to the bar. Still, the number of women accepted by law schools was small. The law profession remained a male bastion during a time when women were often turned away by firms who told them: “We want a man.”
When women were hired by law firms, it was often to work as legal secretaries or law clerks. Discrimination against women remained rampant until the 1970s when women law students got fed up with the constant rejection and filed a Title VII class action lawsuit against 10 major New York law firms. The students won, with the named firms agreeing to new hiring guidelines for women associates.3
In the years since Arabella Mansfield passed the bar exam, much has improved, but much remains the same. Women make up 51% of law students, 35% of U.S. attorneys, 23% of partners in private practice, and are paid 79% of the salary of their male counterparts.4
Today’s women attorneys continue to revolutionize the legal profession. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Gloria Allred, Kamala Harris, Janet Napolitano, along with countless others, are paving the way for future generations and serve as shining examples of the professionalism, eloquence and determination exhibited by women in law over the past 150 years.