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!
As we watch or listen to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, I want to finish off Women’s History Month by paying homage to powerful women in the law who have led our nation’s legal thinking – and broken through previously thick ceilings to get there.
If confirmed, which I hope she will be, Judge Jackson will serve as the first Black woman on the highest court in the land. This is groundbreaking but frankly, it shouldn’t be. That she is Black and a woman should not factor into her candidacy, nor should these details provide obstacles or barriers to her ascension.
One thing I loved and admired about the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was how she was able to develop an argument and get buy-in from people not directly affected by the issue at hand. Before she was even a judge, in her legal cases, she had a way of phrasing things that built compassion and showed the humanity behind a situation.
She made progress by not making something a “women’s issue,” but rather by showing how it was a human issue.
Similarly, Judge Jackson has already shown in her confirmation hearings that she can remain cool under pressure, and rise above the pettiness of politicians. When she was attacked by Senator Lindsey Graham about being too lenient against people convicted in child pornography cases, she responded brilliantly – by turning it into a big-picture issue and showcasing how Senator Graham only spotlighted a tiny detail in a complex and expansive case, where she applied the rules Congress set to decide the legal outcome.
The dignity of these impressive leading women in the law detailed below is something we as a nation need to reclaim. These are challenging times, and people on both sides of the aisle are far from their best behavior.
I hope judicial leaders can reset the tone of our nation by having open eyes, and strong constitutional basis, for how we move forward.
Notable Women In Law
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
Female lawyers comprise only 36% of the legal workforce, and yet some (like those mentioned below) shared their passion for the law, and built a foundation for a future filled with females at the highest level of the law. These are but some of the impressive women across American history who paved the way for women like me to build thriving legal careers.
Margaret Brent: In 1638, Brent became the first woman to practice law in colonial America. She was executor of the estate of Lord Calvert, governor of the Maryland colony. Brent brought more than 100 cases in Maryland Virginia courts.
Myra Bradwell: The founder of the Chicago Legal News in 1868, Bradwell wrote a column on “Law Relating to Women.” In 1873, she appealed to the Supreme Court in what may be the first sexual discrimination case in America.
Lemma Barkaloo: The first woman to apply to Columbia University Law School. (She was rejected in 1868.) She was accepted a year later to Washington University in St. Louis but ultimately quit after being harassed by her male classmates. She did eventually pass the Missouri bar exam, but tragically died in a typhoid epidemic in 1870, never actually practicing law.
Lettie Burlingame: Founder of The Equity Club at the University of Michigan (my alma mater!!) in 1886, a club for female law students and alumni. Eventually, it became the first professional organization for women lawyers.
Lyda Burton Conley: In 1910, Conley became the first Native American female lawyer in America. She taught herself the law to protect her tribe’s cemetery burial land in Huron Park Indian Cemetery from being sold. (She was not successful but set a precedent for later success.)
Genevieve Rose Cline: The first female federal judge in America in 1928.
Sarah Tilghman Hughes: The only woman in history to swear in a U.S. President, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As a district court judge in Texas, she was called upon to swear in then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash
Sarah Weddington: Only 26 years old when she argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, the youngest person ever to argue and win a Supreme Court case!
Sandra Day O’Connor: The first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. Before that, O’Connor was a graduate of Stanford University, served two terms in the Arizona state senate and eventually served on the Supreme Court for 24 years.
Janet Reno: The first female Attorney General, appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: One of my favorite role models of all time and the second woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. When she attended law school at Harvard University, she was one of 8 women in a class of 500.