Women’s History Month: Women in Law
March is Women’s History Month! While women only gained the right to vote in 1920, women have been an important part of legal history since way before that. You just might not know about them.
From female slaves arguing for their freedom to the passionate suffragettes to the women who established themselves in modern law and politics, women of all backgrounds have shaped the legal history of the United States. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s look at just a few of these incredible women.
The Supreme Court
Having three women on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States, doesn’t seem like that big of a deal these days. Considering, though, that women were formerly not even allowed to go to court, it’s amazing to see how far women have come.
To get to where we are now, we have women like Margaret Brent, Lucy Terry Prince, and Belva Lockwood to thank for paving the way. Margaret Brent, a single woman in colonial times, was one of the first women to appear before a court to argue for her own legal and financial rights. And Lucy Terry Prince, a slave taken from Africa, became the first black woman to argue before a judge of the Supreme Court in 1796. Belva Lockwood, also one of the first female lawyers in the United States, became the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court in 1880. Since her time, 727 women have gone on to argue before the Supreme Court!
In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed by President Ronald Regan to serve on the Supreme Court. She was the first woman to do so. Known as a moderate conservative and upholder of the Constitution, O’Connor took part in important decisions like Roe v. Wade and Bush v. Gore.
Today, the three women on the United States Supreme Court are Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elaina Kagan, and Sonya Sotomayor.
Law School Accomplishments
As of 2016, women account for 50% of all law school students. Additionally, women make up 36% of the current legal profession. Looking at these statistics, it’s impossible to believe that the idea of a female lawyer used to seem impossible. But in fact, women weren’t allowed to even study law for many years.
While women have been influencing the decisions of their husbands, fathers, and brothers since the early days of the United States, women didn’t have the chances for formal law education until the 1800s. In 1869, Lemma Barkloo became the first female law student in the United States, but didn’t finish her degree. One year later, Ada Kepley became the first woman to finish her law school education.
Black women were afforded even fewer chances than white women. Therefore, they worked even harder to establish themselves. Three that stand out are Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, Helen Elsie Austin, and Elreta Melton Alexander-Ralston. They were the first black women to study law at University of Pennsylvania, University of Cincinatti, and Columbia University, respectively.
In today’s society, it’s impossible to deny that women play a huge role in law, politics, and social change. As of 2015, women, many of them with legal backgrounds, accounted for 20% of the Senate. Additionally, women make up 19.3% of the House of Representatives.
Some notable women in modern legal and political history are Shirley Chisholm, Madeline Albright, and Janet Reno. Chisholm became the first black women elected to Congress in 1969. She was also the first woman and the first African-American to receive a major party’s nomination for the president of the United States.
Madeline Albright became the first female Secretary of State when she was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. As Secretary of State, she contributed to influential American policies toward the Middle East and Bosnia and Herzegovina, advocated for human rights, and promoted business and labor.
Janet Reno was appointed as the first female Attorney General of the United States in 1993. She oversaw several high-profile issues, including the prosecution of the domestic terrorist behind the Oklahoma City bombing and the siege on a cult compound.
Other Notable Women
While they aren’t all necessarily lawyers, many other women have played major roles in legal, political, and social changes. They include:
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, suffragist, abolitionist, and a leader of the early women’s rights movement
- Lucretia Mott, leader of the women’s rights movement with Elizabeth Cady Stanton
- Rosa Parks, a black woman who became a face of the civil rights movement
- Bella Abzug, a lawyer, United States representative, and leader of Women’s Movement
- Margaret Sanger, early advocate for birth control
- Janice Langbhen, advocate for same-sex marriage and same-sex hospital visitation for a dying partner
- Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers
- Eunice Kennedy Shriver, advocate for people with intellectual disabilities
- Martha Albertson Fineman, a leader in the field of legal feminist theory
Happy Women’s History Month!
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