A statue of Barbara Jordan in Austin's airport.

Honoring Women in Legal History

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By Samantha Youngblood
Senior Manager, Community Engagement

Chief Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are quick to come to mind as transformative figures in law and history. Even so, there are many other women whose names aren’t as recognizable, but whose actions were also significant to the field of law. To commemorate Women’s History Month—which spans the entire month of March—we’re celebrating some lesser known, yet pioneering female American law students, attorneys, civil rights activists, a judge and even a court reporter, who fought prejudice and succeeded.

Some of the women profiled here ascended to positions of influence, others played a quieter role in shaping the law. This author selected these women’s stories to spotlight for no other reasons than her own curiosity and admiration. Several facts and historical references were sourced from “The 50 Most Influential Women in American Law” by Dawn Bradley Berry.

Belva Ann Lockwood (1830 – 1917)
At a time when women were frequently denied admission to law schools, Belva Ann Lockwood didn’t take “no” for an answer. Because of her tenacity and bravery, Lockwood became the first American woman to complete a university-level course at a law school. After that, she had to appeal to the President of the United States to get her law degree. In the spirit of “firsts,” she also became the first woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and the first woman to campaign for presidency, according to the National Archives. In addition to her law practice, Lockwood was also a leader in the women’s suffrage movement in the late 19th century. I was delighted to find a childrens’ book about her titled, “A Lady Has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women’s Rights” by Kate Hannigan.

Clara Shortridge Foltz (1849 – 1934)
Even though Clara Shortridge Foltz’s career in law spanned a half century, her legacy fell into obscurity. She’s credited today for introducing the concept of a “public defender” due to her outrage over inequities in the criminal justice system; it’s fitting that the Los Angeles County criminal courts building was renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center (but not until 2002). Thankfully, she’s recognized now as having been the first female lawyer on the West Coast and for helping open the California bar to women. She worked for passage of the 19th Amendment to guarantee a woman’s right to vote as well. In spite of all the professional and personal struggles (she was also a divorced mother of five), Foltz maintained an active law practice until she retired at 80 years old. 

Charlotte E. Ray (1850 – 1911)
Charlotte Ray graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1872 and is known as the first Black female attorney in the U.S. Ray was the daughter of a distinguished abolitionist whose family worked in the underground railroad network and highly valued education. She practiced law in Washington, D.C.—with a special talent for corporate law—where she was the first woman admitted to the D.C. Bar and then the first woman to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.

Eliza “Lyda” Burton Conley (c. 1868 – 1946)
A member of the Wyandot Nation, Lyda Conley was the first female Native American attorney in America. Conley studied for the bar and prepared to represent herself and her tribe in a tribal land dispute over Huron Cemetery while also physically occupying and protecting her family’s sacred burial grounds. She lost her first suit in the U.S. District Court of Topeka, Kansas before filing a 69-page brief and arguing her case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled against her, however, in 1912-1913 Congress passed a bill protecting the cemetery from disturbance. Conley was laid to rest in the same cemetery she fought to protect.

Genevieve Rose Cline (1877 – 1959)
Until as recently as 1981, “a woman Justice was hard to fathom,” wrote Justice O’Connor about the significance of her own investiture as the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice, in her book “Out of Order.” If a woman practicing law in the early 1900s was rare, a woman upholding and interpreting the law was even rarer. Enter Genevieve R. Cline, the first woman to serve in the U.S. federal judiciary. For 25 years she was a judge of the U.S. Customs Court (now known as the U.S. Court of International Trade).

Mabel Walker Willebrandt (1889 – 1963)
Mabel Walker Willebrandt was the first female public defender in America’s history for handling cases for women charged with assorted offenses (mostly prostitution). She was one of the founders of the Women Lawyers Club of Los Angeles County in 1918 and worked tirelessly to advance the careers of other women lawyers. She was appointed assistant U.S. attorney general at the age of 32 and tasked with enforcing liquor laws during Prohibition years. Her staff was responsible for 40,000 cases per year, of which 50 percent were Prohibition violations. In her tenure as assistant attorney general, she submitted 278 cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. After leaving the Justice Department, she formed a private practice centered around aviation law. And it’s been reported that she worked with Amelia Earhart to promote air travel. 

Vivien Spitz (1924 – 2014)
During World War II, Vivien Spitz (maiden name Putty) trained as a court reporter and learned to type exceptionally fast. Shortly after the war ended, she was recruited by the U.S. government to travel to Germany and serve as a court reporter at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial. Her transcriptions of the trial along with her own summary in her 2005 book “Doctors from Hell,” are vital historical documents. Her career and life were long and included achieving the role of the first female Official Reporter of Debates in the U.S. Senate. 

Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink (1927 – 2002)
After medical schools rejected her, Patsy Mink applied to law school and got her degree from the University of Chicago Law School. But as the first Japanese woman to practice law in the Hawaiian Territory, she faced sexism and racial discrimination and struggled to secure work even after opening her own solo law firm. That led Mink to get politically involved and today she is regarded as the first woman of color, the first Asian American woman, and the first Japanese American woman to serve in Congress. Her legacy of fighting for equal access for women still resonates today as she was a major author and sponsor of the Title IX education amendment.

Barbara Charline Jordan (1936 – 1996)
Before she became a national figure, Barbara Jordan’s legal career began in the law office she operated out of her parents’ dining room. She was educated in segregated schools, graduated from Boston University Law School, and started her legal practice in the south during the 60s civil rights movement. Then she pursued politics. After some early unsuccessful campaigns, she was elected to the Texas legislature (the first Black woman to do so) before running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971. Ultimately, she served three terms in Congress before deciding to leave to teach. 

Women in the law continue to make history and there are so many more not mentioned here. There’s Roberta Cooper Ramo who in 1995 became the first female president of the American Bar Association. There’s Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to take a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022. In a male-dominated industry, women have shaped and will persist in shaping American law. 

About the Author
Samantha Youngblood grew up in Texas and worked for The University of Texas at Austin—just like Barbara Jordan. Unlike Jordan she’s not a lawyer, politician, or historical figure. Sam’s a writer and at Omnizant, she helps legal professionals get the most out of their marketing strategies.