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California’s women lawyers:
134 years and counting

By Rebecca J. Hooley

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday,” Pearl S. Buck once wrote. For this reason, each March as Women’s History Month reminds us of those who have made significant gains in the past, and is an appropriate time to reflect upon the history of women in the legal profession.

The first women’s rights convention in the United States took place in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. After two days of debate, 68 women and 32 men signed the Declaration of Sentiments, calling for equal treatment of men and women in law, education and employment, as well as women’s “sacred right to the elective franchise.”

Some 21 years later, after a generation of men had been born and reached voting age, Wyoming passed the first women’s suffrage law in the United States. Also in 1869, Arabella Mansfield, unable to vote or to serve on a jury herself, became the first woman lawyer in the United States when she was admitted to practice law in Iowa. In 1870, Wyoming became the first US territory or state to allow women to serve on juries.

In an address given shortly before her 1873 trial for “illegally” voting in the 1872 presidential election, Susan B. Anthony described the outrage she and other women faced in being subjected to the limitations, but not the full protections, of the law:

“[N]ot only are all the pronouns in [the law under which I was indicted] masculine, but everybody knows that that particular section was intended expressly to hinder the rebels from voting. It reads ‘If any person shall knowingly vote without his having a lawful right,’ &c. Precisely so with all the papers served on me—the U.S. Marshal’s warrant, the bail-bond, the petition for habeas corpus, the bill of indictment—not one of them had a feminine pronoun printed in it; but, to make them applicable to me, the Clerk of the Court made a little carat at the left of “he” and placed an “s” over it, thus making she out of he. Then the letters “is” were scratched out, the little carat under and “er” over, to make her out of his, and I insist if government officials may thus manipulate the pronouns to tax, fine, imprison and hang women, women may take the same liberty with them to secure to themselves their right to a voice in the government.”

Five years later, in 1878, Clara Shortridge Foltz began her quest to become California’s first woman lawyer. A mother of five small children abandoned by her husband, Foltz turned to the law “[n]ot from ambition and defiance of the norms of womanly conduct, but out of desperation,” in order to support her family.[1] Rather than challenge the California law limiting bar admission to “white male citizens” in the courts, as Arabella Mansfield had done, Foltz paved the way for her legal career by successfully securing the passage of the Woman Lawyer’s Bill, allowing admission to “any citizen or person.” The law was one of the earliest American statutes allowing women to practice law. Later that year, Foltz passed the California bar exam and became the first woman lawyer on the US West Coast.

Despite this success, Foltz and other women attorneys in California faced severe obstacles to the practice of law for many years to come. Although a member of the bar, Foltz was later was denied admission for formal legal studies at Hastings College of the Law, and was forced to argue her own case before the California Supreme Court to secure admission. Despite being allowed to argue cases to juries, women were not entitled to serve on them for many decades.

Women’s suffrage passed in California only in 1911, and it took until 1917 that another law was enacted allowing women on California juries. In 1920, 72 years after the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, granting all women the right to vote.

It was in this context that the first women’s bar associations in California were formed.

Begrudgingly granted admission to the bar and to the Bar Association of San Francisco, women lawyers were not welcome. Ever resourceful, the women lawyers of the San Francisco Bay Area banded together to form Queen’s Bench to further the interests of women in law and society.

The first Queen’s Bench planning meeting was held Dec. 11, 1920. Invitations were sent to every woman lawyer in the vicinity of San Francisco – a total of 26 at the time. Twenty-one women accepted and gathered at the Tait-Zinkand Cafe on O’Farrell Street. Some attendees felt the purpose of the organization should be to further professional contacts and create a substitute for the Bar Association of San Francisco, where intolerance by some male members made participation by women lawyers uncomfortable and difficult.

The attendees were nevertheless mindful of those who believed that “it was inadvisable to emphasize a distinction between the sexes in the profession, and that a woman’s bar association would increase, rather than diminish, the obvious prejudice of men in the profession.” The final policy decision at the first meeting was not to create a separate bar association, but to work within the existing one. All 21 of the attendees at the December luncheon signed on as charter members, and another four women attorneys joined Queen’s Bench before the end of the year.

Queen’s Bench eventually did become an independent bar association, however, in acknowledgment of the distinct issues women face in gaining equal recognition in the legal profession. Since that time, numerous other women’s bar associations formed in California to address similar concerns.

While history shows the tremendous obstacles women lawyers have overcome in the past century, these organizations address the many enduring challenges, such as lack of pay parity and the shortage of women in leadership roles. In meeting and overcoming these challenges, the history of women in the legal profession should be remembered as a guide for the future.

Rebecca J. Hooley is a deputy county counsel for Contra Costa County. Her practice focuses on matters related to property taxation, probate and public records. She is the 2012 president of Queen’s Bench Bar Association of the Bay Area.

[1] Barbara Babcock, Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz at 8 (2011).

Any opinions and/or viewpoints contained in this article belong solely to the author(s) and are not necessarily the opinion of the California Bar Journal or the State Bar of California or its staff and employees.