Trailblazers: Women Leading the Law
This month, as we celebrate women in history and around the world, I want to take a few minutes to celebrate women who lead the legal landscape – today as well as those trailblazers who paved the way for us.
At the Department of Justice, women rose through the ranks to assume leadership positions, with Attorney General Janet Reno serving as the first female AG during the Clinton Administration (1993-2001). But that was remarkable considering that prior to the 1970s, you could rarely find a woman at the level of Assistant Attorney General, let alone higher.
Annette Abbott Adams was our nation’s first female Assistant Attorney General (1920 – 1921) and also the first woman to sit on the California Supreme Court, having been appointed by special assignment for one case. Adams attended Chico State Normal School and the University of California Berkeley, where she earned a Bachelor of Law in 1904. She was the one of the first women to graduate from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, and was admitted to the California state bar in 1912.
The first female attorney in U.S. history was Belle Babb Mansfield – here’s an interesting video about her.
In 1869, trailblazer Myra Bradwell attempted to become the first woman admitted to the Illinois bar to practice law, but was denied by both the Illinois Supreme Court (1870) and the U.S. Supreme Court (1873), who insisted that a woman’s place was not, apparently, in the courtroom.
Bradwell founded and served as publisher for Chicago Legal News. In 1872, inspired by her case, the Illinois legislature passed a state law prohibiting gender discrimination in admitting a person to an occupation. Four years before she died, Bradwell was admitted to the Illinois bar. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court followed with its own motion.
Charlotte E. Ray was the first African-American woman lawyer in the United States. A graduate of Howard University School of Law, she was the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar and the first woman allowed to practice before the Supreme Court of D.C. Her admission opened doors for women seeking admission to the bar across the nation.
Here in Michigan, more trailblazers include the first three female Justices of our Supreme Court were Mary S. Coleman, Dorothy Comstock Riley and Patricia J. Boyle. The Women Lawyers Association of Michigan created a fascinating video about these three leaders.
Patsy Mink was the first Japanese-American woman lawyer in Hawaii, and the first Asian-American woman and woman of color elected to Congress. Here’s a video about her.
And finally, our very own Vice President, Kamala Harris, is an incredible woman whose legal and political career should inspire us all. Not only is she the first female Vice President – she has lived a life devoted to serving the public, as District Attorney of San Francisco, California’s Attorney General and a U.S. Senator.
Although Harris has an impressive and extraordinary career, I am most inspired by her character, dignity and determination to not be cowed by critics. Like all these trailblazers, she sets an example of a strong and smart woman – which can be off-putting to so many, but should not be. Thank you, Vice President Harris, for setting such a great example!