Determining women firsts in the legal profession is difficult because at the turn of the 20th century several women across the country were making their way into the profession, each with their own obstacles. Belle Babb Mansfield is often considered the first woman lawyer because she was the first woman to be admitted to the bar in the United States, though she never really practiced law. There were several women practicing law before Mansfield was officially recognized, though they had to practice without official recognition. The recorded history of women lawyers is somewhat scattered and inconsistent. I’ve chosen to highlight four of the early female lawyers though the list is by no means exhaustive but each one has an inspirational story.
Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood (1830 – 1917) Favorite stats: Lockwood drafted an anti-discrimination bill to have the same access to the bar as male colleagues. From 1874 to 1879, she lobbied Congress to pass it. In 1879, Congress finally passed the law. It allowed all qualified women attorneys to practice in any federal court. Lockwood was sworn in as the first woman member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar on March 3, 1879. Late in 1880, she became the first woman lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Even her detractors regarded her as competent.
Carrie Burnham Kilgore (1838 – 1909) Favorite stats: Worked to gain women the same rights as men in both of her chosen fields: medicine and the law. First woman to gain a medical degree in the state of New York. First woman to graduate from Pennsylvania Law School and first woman admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. Carrie Burnham Kilgore’s obituary published in the New York Times in 1909 is quite befitting. It recognized the hardships placed in the path of ambitious women directly, something that seems to have been lost subsequent histories.
Arabella “Belle” Babb Mansfield (1846 – 1911) Favorite stats: Though she never practiced law in the traditional sense, spending her time instead teaching and advocating for women’s rights, in the summer of 1893 she was officially acknowledged as the first woman to be admitted to the bar in the United States. She was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage. A beautiful bronze statute was erected in her honor in 2008 in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, the community which she was from and dedicated her life to helping.
Charlotte E. Ray (1850 – 1911) Favorite stats: First female African American lawyer in the United States. Argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. Gained entrance to Howard University School of Law and the District of Columbia Bar without contest (allegedly) because she had the clever intuition to apply as C. E. Ray and they assumed she was male.
These four are of a handful of marvelous women who pioneered the entrance of women into the legal field. Each with their own harrowing tale of the struggle and opposition that ensued as they entered the legal profession. Just gaining entrance to law school was a battle. It took Carrie Burnham Kilgore ten years of applying before she was finally admitted to Pennsylvania Law School.
Gaining admittance to law school was just the beginning as law schools routinely refused to grant diplomas to women, though they had successfully completed all the required course work. Belva Lockwood had to petition to the President of the United States, at the time Ulysses S. Grant, to compel the National University Law School (now George Washington University Law School) to issue her diploma.
Even if a diploma was issued, gaining entrance to the bar was another hurdle. When Belve Lockwood tried to gain admission to the bar in Maryland, a judge lectured her and told her that God Himself had determined that women were not equal to men and never could be. When she tried to respond on her own behalf, he said she had no right to speak and had her removed from the courtroom. To gain admission to the Pennsylvania bar Carrie Burnham Kilgore had to petition the state General Assembly three times before being successful.
Despite the opposition, the women prevailed. Carrie Burnham Kilgore had a successful law practice. Begrudgingly, Belva A. Lockwood’s detractors admitted she was a competent lawyer. Charlotte E. Ray argued in front of the Supreme Court and had her own law practice for a few years. Belle Babb Mansfield was respected teacher and women’s rights advocate. They paved the way for future generations of women to enter the legal profession.
Each woman was an advocate for the women’s suffrage movement and used their successes to advocate for women’s rights. None of the four lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, the passage of Constitutional right for women to vote.
Kimberly is a law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. When not studying or writing, she can be found devouring video games and books. She is commonly caught muttering under her breath a critique of the consumeristic mechanism that constantly insists on bombarding her personal space.