March is Women’s History Month, a time to acknowledge and reflect upon the storied contributions of women throughout U.S. history. While the struggle for equal rights continues, it is worth taking time to look back at some of the trailblazers who, through courage and sacrifice, helped open up new opportunities for millions of American women.
At Sokolove Law, we would like to do our part by highlighting 6 women from American legal history — 6 firsts in their fields who helped steer the course toward a more equal and accepting society.
While no list of individual trailblazers or accomplishments can fully honor the complexity of women’s history, these 6 leaders helped to broaden the limits of possibility in the field of law, proving to all women that no barrier is too high.
Considered by many to be the first woman lawyer in American history, Margaret Brent was an English immigrant who arrived in the American colonies in 1638. At a time when the United State of America was yet to be conceived, Brent became the first woman in North America to appear before a court of the common law.
Far from being the first, Brent was an accomplished litigator and a prominent figure in the early settlement of Maryland. She served as estate executor for the governor of Maryland and ensured payment to soldiers in the colony, likely saving it from violent mutiny at a time of great political turmoil.
For all her mastery of law and defense of advocacy of women’s legal rights, Brent was still a victim of the times. Having continuously asserted her right to property, Brent soured in the mind of Maryland’s male-dominated legal and political system and was eventually forced to leave the colony.
Today, however, her name is honored in the Margaret Brent Awards, which the American Bar Association presents each year to women lawyers who have achieved excellence in the legal profession.
While Margaret Brent may have been the first female lawyer in the English colonies, Arabella Mansfield is widely regarded as the first woman lawyer in the United States. Having passed the Iowa bar exam in 1869, Mansfield spent her career as an educator, teaching political science, English, and history at Simpson College.
Perhaps more notably, Mansfield is responsible for opening up the field of law to women in her state. At the time, Iowa restricted eligibility for the state bar to men over the age of 21, despite Manfield having taken and passed the exam with high scores.
Undaunted, Mansfield filed a legal challenge against this exclusionary law. The challenge was successful, and in 1869, thanks to Mansfield, Iowa ruled that women and minorities may not be denied the right to practice law. The state became the first in the country to accept women and minorities to its bar.
While Belva Ann Lockwood is distinguished as one of the first woman lawyers in the country, as well as the first to be allowed to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, her accomplishments go far beyond that of a trailblazer.
Born in 1830, Lockwood did not begin practicing law until 1871, when she was admitted to the District of Columbia bar — just 2 years after Arabella Mansfield blazed the trail as the first woman in the country to be admitted to any state’s bar. However, at that time, she was not permitted to speak before the Supreme Court because of “custom.”
Rather than accepting defeat, Lockwood used this obstacle to ignite her career, becoming one of the most successful and forceful advocates for women’s rights in her time.
Throughout the early 1870s, Lockwood lobbied for an anti-discrimination bill that would provide equal access to the bar. That bill passed in 1879, and soon after Lockwood became the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court.
Among her other accomplishments, Lockwood drafted a bill that established equal pay for equal work by women in government positions. That bill passed in 1872. She was the first woman to run for president, running in both the 1884 and 1888 elections as a candidate of the National Equal Rights Party.
She was a lifelong advocate of women’s suffrage, as well as an advocate for racial equality. She sponsored Samuel R. Lowery to the Supreme Court bar, helping Lowery become the first African-American attorney to argue a case before the court.
Lutie A. Lytle
There’s a reason why women’s history often intersects with the struggle for racial justice, as both are reactions to widespread systemic injustice. Lutie Lytle is remarkable for how, throughout her career as a lawyer and professor, she managed to straddle both worlds.
In addition to being one of the first African-American women to practice law in the U.S., Lytle became the first woman of any color to teach law in a chartered law school, the first African-American to be admitted to the Kansas bar, the first African-American woman licensed to practice law in Tennessee, the first African-American woman to join a national bar organization, and one of the first female law professors in the world.
Lytle began her career in 1891 at the age of 16, when she was appointed to a clerk position for the Kansas Populist party. Later, having served as a newspaper reporter and witnessing the harms of legal ignorance, Lytle took to studying law in Tennessee. She passed the bar in 1897, despite tremendous adversity from the legal, political, and cultural establishment.
Lytle then devoted her life to helping African-Americans, paving the way for a number of firsts for both women and African-Americans. She taught legal courses at Central Tennessee College, returned to Kansas and delivered lectures on legal practice, moved to New York City and got involved in local politics, and continued to serve as one of the most staunch advocates for equality in her time.
Genevieve Cline became the first female federal judge in 1928 when President Calvin Coolidge nominated her to an Associate Justice seat on the U.S. Customs Court. She continued to serve in the federal judiciary in New York City for 25 years.
But her firsts were not limited to the court of law. In 1922, a year after receiving a law degree from Baldwin-Wallace College, Cline became the first woman to serve as a merchandise appraiser for the U.S. Customs Service.
Before serving as a federal judge in New York, Cline was a stalwart advocate for women’s rights. She was involved in the Federation of Women's Clubs and served as president of the Cleveland Federation of Women's Clubs for 6 years. She was also chairman of the Ohio Federation of Women's Clubs for 2 years.
Sandra Day O’Connor
A titan of both women’s and legal history, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, O’Connor served as an associate justice until her retirement in 2006.
O’Connor held a number of firsts in her life. In addition to being the first woman Supreme Court justice, she was the first woman in the country to serve as female majority leader in a state senate (Arizona). Her appointment to the Supreme Court, which was confirmed in the Senate by a 99-0 vote, was met with national fanfare.
Within the first year of her term, O’Connor received over 60,000 letters — more than any other member in the court’s history. In recounting her experience, O’Connor stated she felt an obligation to demonstrate that “women could do the job of justice.”
Although considered a moderate conservative, O’Connor was perhaps best known as one of the few swing votes on the Court. She researched meticulously and limited her legal opinions only to the case at hand. As such, what her critics blasted as unpredictability, her supporters interpreted as an avoidance of ideology — an unbiased analysis fit for any judge.