The Major Events and Women that Shaped U.S. Legal History

Posted Mar 16, 2020

This Women’s History Month, we are looking back at some of the most notable female attorneys, landmark cases, and other women-led events that have helped shape our legal system, and our country, into what we know today.

The First Female to Practice Law in the American Colonies: Margaret Brent (1601 – 1671)

“I’ve come to seek a voice in this assembly. And yet because I am a woman, forsooth I must stand idly by and not even have a voice in the framing of your laws.”

Although she was never a U.S. attorney, and she never practiced law in what is now known as the United States, it feels wrong to begin any timeline of women in U.S. legal history without mentioning Margaret Brent. As an English immigrant to the Colony of Maryland, Brent was the first woman to practice law and appear before a court of common law in American colonies. She would also be the only known female to argue cases in any type of court in the U.S. for over 200 hundred years.

Brent was most well-known for being the appointed attorney-in-fact for Lord Baltimore, an English nobleman, whom she represented in the provincial assembly and in many cases regarding real estate and other financial matters.

The First Female Attorney: Arabella Mansfield (1846 – 1911)

“The theory of this Government from the beginning has been perfect equality to all the people.”

198 years after Margaret Brent passed away, Arabella Mansfield, a native Iowan, took and passed the Iowa bar with notably high scores, despite a state statute restricting it only to white males over the age of 21. After a court challenge to the law, one of Mansfield’s first legal actions as an attorney, Iowa changed its licensing statute and became the first state to accept women and minorities into the bar.

Mansfield would officially become the first female attorney in the United States, yet she would never again practice law in her lifetime. She instead would dedicate her life to teaching and the women’s suffrage movement.

Landmark Law: Women and the Supreme Court

On February 15th, 1879, Rutherford B. Hayes signed a new law that would allow women to become members of the Supreme Court bar, meaning they would be able to submit and argue cases in front of the highest court in the land. The law championed by Belva Lockwood, an attorney, author and politician who would also go on to become the first woman to argue a case (Kaiser v. Stickney and later United States v. Cherokee Nation) in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1923, Florence King would become the first woman to win a case before the U.S. Supreme Court (Crown v. Nye), and Olive H. Rabe would become the first woman to argue a free speech case (United States v. Schwimmer) in 1929.

Two Marys Make History with the American Bar Association

Founded in 1878, the American Bar Association would become the leading U.S. legal association, but it would take 40 years before any women were admitted as members. Judge Mary Belle Grossman of Cleveland, Ohio, and Mary Florence Lathrop of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania would change that in 1918. They would both become the first two female attorneys in the United States to be admitted to the association, paving the way for all future female members.

The First Women Judges in the U.S. Court System

After the start of the 20th century, women began to earn their way into judgeship position across the country. Although their appointments were slow to start, they would soon pick up pace after the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, which granted women in the United States the right to vote. Some of the earliest known female judges in the U.S. include:

  • Mary H. Cooper — the first female probate judge (1908)
  • Kathryn Sellers (1911) — the first federally appointed female judge (1918)
  • Julia W. Ker — the first female police judge (1926)
  • Florence Ellinwood Allen (1914) — the first female elected to a judgeship (1920)
  • Mary O’Toole (1914) — the first female appointed as a municipal judge (1921)
  • Jane Bolin (1932) — the first African American female judge (1939)
  • Constance Baker Motley (1946) — the first African American female appointed as a federal judge (1966)

Over the next 80 years, women of many different races and ethnicities would be appointed to judgeship position all over the U.S. and at all levels, including Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to be appointed as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme court.

There is so much more to cover and so little time. In the 150+ years since Arabella Mansfield made history as the first female attorney, women have continued to make history and shape the country in positions in all levels of local, state and federal municipalities and governments, including U.S. Attorney General of the United States (the first being Janet Reno in 1993).

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