Since 1981, we have celebrated women’s history during the month of March. Women’s History Month is a time to celebrate the contributions women have made to the United States and recognize the specific achievements women have made over the course of American history in a variety of fields. Today, women make up 38% of lawyers in the United States, and it is because of the following women we trailblaze forward.
“I may be the first woman to hold this office. But I won’t be that last.”
_VP Kamala Harris.
When women were denied entry into legal professions, these four women chose to break the rules and become lawyers.
- Arabella Mansfield became the first female lawyer in 1869 when she was admitted to the Iowa bar. Mansfield had earned high scores despite an Iowa state law restricting the bar exam to males. She was a pioneer in the Iowa suffrage movement; in 1870, she chaired the first Iowa Suffrage Association state convention. She was the group’s first secretary and campaigned for equal educational opportunities for women and voting rights. In 1980, she was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.
- Charlotte E. Ray was the first Black female lawyer and the first woman to graduate from Howard University School of Law in 1872. Ray broke new ground for women, becoming one of the first women admitted to the District of Columbia bar. She opened her own law office in DC. Due to the times, it was not easy to keep the practice open. She moved back to New York City and became a teacher.
- Ada Kepley was the first woman to graduate in 1870 from Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. She was denied a license to practice law; however, her husband helped challenge the ruling by drafting a bill forbidding sexual discrimination in the learned professions, which was passed in 1872.
- Belva Lockwood was the first woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1873, Lockwood completed her studies at George Washington University Law School but was not granted a diploma because she was a woman. In 1876, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court refused to admit Lockwood to its bar, so she drafted an anti-discrimination bill so women could have the same access to the bar as men. Congress passed the bill, allowing all qualified women attorneys to practice in federal court. In 1880, Lockwood argued before the Supreme Court in Kaiser v. Stickney, the first woman to do so.
Women who paved the way further.
- Patsy Mink was the first POC elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Asian-American elected to Congress. In 1972 she became the first East Asian American woman to seek a presidential nomination.
“We have to build things that we want to see accomplished, in life and our country, based on our own experiences … to make sure that others … do not have to suffer the same discrimination.”
- Mary C. Morgan was the first openly lesbian judge appointed in the United States. She was a San Francisco County Superior Court judge and former San Francisco Municipal Court judge.
- Haben Girma was the first Deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. She was named the White House Champion of Change by President Obama in 2013.
“Disability is not something an individual overcomes. I’m still disabled. I’m still Deafblind. People with disabilities are successful when we develop alternative techniques, and our communities choose inclusion.”
- Elizabeth K Ohi was the first Japanese American female attorney in 1937.
- Lyda Conley was a member of the Wyandot Nation, and in 1909 she became the first Native American woman to argue before the Supreme Court. She also was the first woman admitted to the Kansas bar. Her work was dedicated to the tribunal burial ground of the Wyandot Nation. She spent ten days in jail at the age of 68 after chasing people off the burial ground of the Wyandot Nation.
“In this cemetery are buried one-hundred of our ancestors … Why should we not be proud of our ancestors and protect their graves? We shall do it, and woe is to the man that first attempts to steal a body.”
- Florence King became the first female patent attorney in 1897. In 1918, she became the first female vice president of the Women’s Bar Association of Chicago. In 1922, she became the first woman to argue a patent case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female justice in the 191-year history of the Supreme Court. In 1952 O’Conner graduated third in her class from Stanford Law School. She was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. After retirement, she advocated for educating America’s youth. She founded iCivics, a website providing creative and effective teaching tools on the subject of civic engagement.
“Do the best you can in every task, no matter how unimportant it may seem at the time. No one learns more about a problem than the person at the bottom.”
_Sandra Day O’Connor
- Jewel Stadford Lafontant was the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School in 1946, the first black woman to be named Assistant U.S. Attorney in 1955, and in 1973 the first woman Deputy Solicitor General of the United States.
We hope these women’s stories and achievements inspire you to become trailblazers in the legal field!