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Summary: Do you know the history of women in law? Read this article to learn that history.
In 1638, American law was first argued by a woman.
Since then, women have made large strides within the legal profession.
While there’s still a long distance to be traveled for gender equality in law, these 15 women legal trailblazers should be noted by anyone interested in the field of law.
Although law schools are almost equally made up of men and women, The American Bar Association has reported that only 36% of working attorneys are female. Research has shown that women have a high attrition rate in law firms. While the percentage of women during a first-year associate class is nearly equal to that of men, each year women drop out of the ranks. A 2016 study from the New York Bar Association found that only 19% of women were partners at law firms while only 15% of those women were minority women.
The reasons given that women leave law vary. Some believe women exit after starting families because the profession does not usually allow adequate work-life balances. Others theorize that women resign from law because of the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, or gender discrimination. No matter the reasons, it is a truth that being a lawyer is not easy and being a female lawyer can have its own unique challenges. Despite law firms attempting to alter their culture, the legal profession continues to be dominated by straight, white males.
But that doesn’t mean that women can’t and haven’t broken down doors that will benefit other female attorneys in the future. There are numerous female attorneys working today that are making strides to level the playing field, and there are others before them who were also trailblazers. The following list includes 15 women lawyers who made their marks on American history. These strong women fought external barriers to change history, and many of them accomplished career firsts.
Margaret Brent is the first woman on record to ever practice law in the United States. Born in England, she immigrated to North America and was a founding settler of Maryland and Virginia. She owned property and was never married, and many said that she was one of the first women to fight for feminism.
Brent’s first case was managing the estate of the governor of Maryland Colony in 1638, and she reportedly went on to handle almost 100 court cases. She was the first woman to ever appear in a court of common law. After her death, there were no records of female attorneys for almost 200 years.
In 1869, Arabella Mansfield became the first woman to ever be admitted into the bar in the United States. Born Belle Aurelia Babb, Arabella practiced in Iowa after taking the bar exam and earning an exceptional score. At the time, the Iowa bar only permitted men to take the test, but Mansfield took it anyway. Shortly after her admittance, Iowa amended its licensing terms and allowed women and minorities into the state bar.
In June of 2017, thirty law firms came together to enact “The Mansfield Rule,” which requires all participating law firms to interview at least one female candidate during the hiring process, JD Journal reported. The Mansfield Rule was modeled after the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which required one minority candidate to be interviewed during the coach hiring process. The participating law firms hoped that enacting The Mansfield Rule would address the low number of female partners in BigLaw.
Ada Kepley graduated from what would later become Northwestern University in 1870. The attorney graduated one year after Mansfield was inducted into the Iowa bar, and Kepley became the first female to have graduated from law school. (In Iowa, Mansfield was not required to have a law degree to obtain a license.)
After graduating, Kepley was denied entry into the Illinois bar because of gender laws, but she was later instated after Illinois changed its licensing regulations. During her career, Kepley fought for temperance and women’s suffrage. She gained prominence for her work with Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard.
Belva Lockwood argued the case, Kaiser v. Stickney, in front of the Supreme Court in 1880, making her the first woman to ever present in front of the highest court in the United States. Lockwood was known as a suffragist, someone who fights for women’s right to vote, and her life was spent overcoming barriers caused by her gender.
For instance, she graduated from law school in Washington DC, but the administration refused to grant her a diploma because of her gender. Without the degree, she was ineligible to enter the state bar, so she petitioned President Ulysses Grant, who helped her get her deserved diploma. With the diploma, she received her state law license. However, she continued to face gender discrimination. Nonetheless, she built a practice and was known to be a competent attorney.
Lockwood not only was a trailblazer because of her career but she also worked tirelessly to help other female lawyers enter the profession. From 1874 to 1879, she lobbied for legislation that would allow women to have access to the bar in the same way as men. In 1879, the bill was signed into law.
Myra Bradwell attempted to join the Illinois State Bar, but was denied. She attempted to appeal this decision but was denied again by the state’s Supreme Court in 1870 and the US Supreme Court in 1873. The courts stated that as a married woman, she did not have the right to enter into contracts and thus could not be a lawyer. Almost 20 years later, she was granted a law license, but she died two years after.
Bradwell, who was well-versed in law, worked as a legal apprentice underneath her husband, James Bradwell, and together, they founded the Chicago Legal News. Giving women rights previously denied to them was important to Myra, and she helped draft the Illinois Married Women's Property Act of 1861 and the Earnings Act of 1869, two acts that gave women the right to control their own property. Additionally, Bradwell’s fight to get a license was possibly the first gender discrimination case on American record.
Attorney Barbara Jordan was a leader in the Civil Rights movement. Earning a LLB from Boston University, she practiced law in Texas starting in 1960. In 1966, she won a seat in the Texas Senate, and she was the first African-American woman elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and she was later the first Southern African-American woman to win a spot in the House of Representatives.
Jordan was also the first woman and first African-American to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. After retiring from politics, Jordan became a professor of ethics.
In the late 1960s, Sarah Weddington, then 26, agreed to take a case pro bono that would forever change the course of women’s rights. Weddington represented “Jane Roe” in the landmark US Supreme Court case, Roe vs. Wade; and in 1973, Weddington became the youngest person ever to successfully argue a case before SCOTUS.
Winning Roe vs. Wade gave American women the right to an abortion, and it is one of the most famous feminist cases in modern history. Post Roe vs. Wade, Weddington was elected to three terms in the Texas House of Representatives and continued to advocate for women. She is currently a law professor.
Sandra Day O’Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor was the first female Justice of the Supreme Court. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed the then-Arizona judge to the highest bench in the US, and she served for 24 years.
O’Connor was known as a moderate Republican and federalist, and she often decided on cases narrowly versus broadly. During the beginning of her tenure, she tended to side with the conservative bloc but later she was considered a swing vote. Some notable cases she ruled on included Bush vs. Gore and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey.
In 2006, Arizona State University renamed its law school after O’Connor. ASU Law was ranked the 27th best law school in the nation by US News and World Report in 2019.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second female Supreme Court Justice and the first Jewish female justice. The notable liberal graduated from Columbia Law School, and she was appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton. Ginsburg, who is known as RBG, worked for the American Civil Liberties Union before joining the Supreme Court, and she has played a role in pivotal cases such as Citizens United v. FEC, Bush v. Gore, and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
Harvard Law graduate, Janet Reno, was not only the longest serving US Attorney General but also the first female one. Appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, Reno oversaw high profile cases such as the trial of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who were responsible for the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City.
Reno, known for her liberal views, launched an innovative program that steered non-violent drug offenders away from jail. Her career was viewed overall as positive, although there were two high-profile controversies. One was the raid of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas that resulted in dozens of people dying, and the other was the deportation of Elian Gonzalez, who was six-years-old at the time.
After her tenure as Attorney General, Reno advocated for changes in education, linking problems with the school system to the crime rate. In 2004, she co-founded The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that exonerates convicted criminals using DNA evidence.
Elena Kagan is currently a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States; but before her appointment, the Harvard Law School graduate was also the first female dean of the law school, one of the oldest and most prestigious law schools in the country. In 2009, Kagan was also named the first female Solictor General of the United States.
In 2010, President Barack Obama named her as a Supreme Court Justice, replacing Justice John Paul Stevens. She is the fourth woman to serve as a Justice on the Supreme Court.
Long before the #MeToo movement exploded in 2017, Gloria Allred had devoted her career to taking down powerful abusive men. According to her website, her law firm Allred, Maroko & Goldberg handles more women’s rights cases than any other private firm in the country.
In four decades, Allred has represented victims of sexual harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination, and more; and she has famously represented some of the sexual harassment accusers of President Donald Trump and comedian Bill Cosby. Known for her media savvy, Allred has built a reputation as a champion of women.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the first woman to ever be nominated for a presidential bid from a major party. Clinton’s career started out at the Children’s Defense Fund in Massachusetts, and she later went on to work with disenfranchised people in Arkansas. Her husband, Bill Clinton, was elected President in 1992 and 1996, and after her time as First Lady, Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State and a New York Senator.
Hillary, a Yale Law School alum, lost the presidency to Republican rival Donald Trump, and in her November 2016 succession speech, she said to “never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
Michelle Obama was the first African-American First Lady of the United States. The Harvard Law graduate advocated for healthy eating and fitness education during her time in the White House, and she was also passionate about promoting the arts and education as well as civil rights. A national poll from 2016 showed that she had a 79% approval rating.
Before her husband, Barack Obama, served in office from 2008 to 2016, Michelle Obama was an associate at Sidley & Austin and also held positions at nonprofits in Chicago.
Appointed to the Supreme Court in 2009, Sonia Sotomayor was the first Hispanic to serve as a Justice. The Yale Law School graduate focuses on reforming the criminal justice system, and she is known for her progressive opinions.
Prior to her Supreme Court appointment by President Barack Obama, Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H. W. Bush in 1991. In 1997, she was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She has also taught law at New York University and Columbia.
This list should show young people interested in the legal profession that it is possible for nearly anyone to successfully go to and graduate from law school and then go onto have a noteworthy career.
While, yes, the profession of law still has a long way to go as far as diversity is concerned. Nevertheless, the playing field is beginning to even out both racially and in gender, which the above list of 15 brave and innovative women formidably shows.
If anything, this shows that law is no longer a profession for elitists or an elitist culture, which for those who not only wish to practice, or already do practice law, a welcomed change to all others who are affected by law.
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