The legal profession has traditionally been male-dominated, but over the years, women have made significant strides in breaking down barriers and achieving success in the field. Despite facing discrimination and obstacles, women have fought tirelessly to become lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals. In this article, we will explore the history of women in the legal profession, highlighting key milestones and individuals who have contributed to the progress of women in the law.
Early Days: Women in Law Before the 20th Century
For most of history, women were excluded from the legal profession entirely. However, there were a few notable exceptions. In 1869, Arabella Mansfield became the first woman admitted to the bar in the United States, after Iowa passed a law allowing women to practice law. In the UK, the first woman to earn a law degree was Ada Kepley, who graduated from the Union College of Law in 1870. Despite these early successes, progress was slow, and women faced many obstacles to entering the legal profession.
The 20th Century: Breaking Barriers and Making Progress
The 20th century saw significant progress for women in the legal profession. In 1902, women were first allowed to take the bar exam in New York. Two years later, Belva Lockwood became the first woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote and laying the foundation for greater gender equality in all aspects of American life, including the legal profession.
During World War II, the demand for lawyers grew, and many women were hired to fill positions left vacant by men who had gone off to fight. This led to more opportunities for women in the legal profession, and many took advantage of these new openings. In 1943, the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois was founded, becoming the first bar association in the U.S. exclusively for women.
Despite these advances, women still faced significant discrimination and barriers to advancement in the legal profession. In 1963, women made up just 2% of all lawyers in the United States. In response, women’s groups formed to advocate for equal opportunities and to fight against gender-based discrimination.
Legal Landmarks for Women: Key Cases and Legislation
Over the years, there have been several key legal cases and pieces of legislation that have helped to promote gender equality in the legal profession. Here are a few examples:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: This landmark legislation prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It has been used to challenge discrimination against women in the legal profession.
Reed v. Reed (1971): This U.S. Supreme Court case was the first to strike down a state law on the basis of gender discrimination. The law in question gave preference to men over women in the appointment of estate administrators.
In re Gault (1967): This Supreme Court case established the right to legal counsel for juveniles in delinquency proceedings. It had a significant impact on the legal profession by opening up new areas of practice for lawyers.
Roe v. Wade (1973): This Supreme Court case established a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. It had a profound impact on the legal profession, including the development of reproductive rights law as a specialized area of practice.
Women in Leadership Roles: Breaking the Glass Ceiling
Despite the progress that has been made, women still face significant barriers to advancement in the legal profession. However, there have been some notable women who have broken through the glass ceiling and achieved leadership positions in the legal field.
One of the most prominent examples is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1993 until her death in 2020. Ginsburg was a trailblazer for women in the law, having graduated at the top of her class from Columbia Law School in 1959. Throughout her career, she fought tirelessly for gender equality and women’s rights, and her work helped pave the way for future generations of women in the legal profession.
Other notable women who have broken barriers in the legal profession include:
Sandra Day O’Connor: In 1981, O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to that, she had been a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals and the Arizona State Senate.
Kamala Harris: In 2017, Harris became the first woman of color to serve as attorney general of California. In 2021, she became the first woman and person of color to be elected vice president of the United States.
Sonia Sotomayor: In 2009, Sotomayor became the first Latina woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to that, she had been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Women have come a long way in the legal profession, from being excluded entirely to breaking through barriers and achieving leadership positions. However, there is still much work to be done to promote gender equality and ensure that women have equal opportunities to succeed in the legal field. By continuing to fight for equal rights and opportunities, women in the legal profession can build on the progress that has been made and continue to pave the way for future generations of women in law.