Famous Female Attorneys

Posted April 1, 2010 in Current Events by

The United States has had three female U.S. Supreme Court Justices and a U.S. Attorney General. While it may seem as if women have solidly broken through the glass ceiling, most almost all of these advances have come in the last century. March was Women’s History Month. We’re a day late, but I thought it would be interesting to share some famous female "firsts" when it comes to women lawyers in U.S. history.

First Female Lawyers in the United States

In 1869 Arabella Mansfield became the first woman admitted to practice law (in Iowa). That same year, Myra Colby Bradwell passed the Illinois bar exam, but the Illinois Supreme Court refused to admit her to the bar, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their decision. Bradwell was finally admitted to the Illinois bar in 1890.

Charlotte E. Ray was the first black female lawyer, admitted to the Washington, D.C., bar in 1872. Interestingly, Ray applied to the bar as C.E. Ray and was admitted because the bar admissions committee assumed she was a man.

Not long afterward (in 1879), Ada H. Kepley became the first woman to graduate law school, from Union College of Law in Chicago. (In earlier centuries, legal apprenticeships—where a college graduate worked with an experienced lawyer to learn the law without attending law school—were quite common.)

First Female Judges in the United States

In 1934, Florence E. Allen was the first female judge named to a federal circuit seat. In 1939, Jane M. Bolin was named the first black female judge and served in New York City’s Domestic Relations Court. (Bolin was also the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School.) And in 1966, Constance Baker Motley became the first black woman to serve as a federal judge.

Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 and served more than two decades before retiring in 2006. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second female Supreme Court justice.) Last year, Sonya Sotomayor became the first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

First Women Lawyers in Government

In 1993, Janet Reno became the first U.S. Attorney General following her nomination by President Clinton. (Clinton had originally nominated Zoe Baird to serve as attorney general, but Baird withdrew after it was revealed that she’d failed to pay Social Security taxes for several household employees.

In 2001, Barbara D. Underwood because the first woman to serve as acting U.S. Solicitor General. Elena Kagan because the first woman to officially hold that position, in 2009. (Kagan was also the first female dean of Harvard Law School.)

It’s Not Too Late

Even today, there are still U.S. legal jobs that have never been held by a woman. For example, we still have not had a female chief justice of the United States. The history of women lawyers in the United States is still being written!

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