Back when our parents first started watching TV, every lawyer and every judge was male, in every courtroom scene. Today you see gender equality in the legal field, at least on TV. According to the American Bar Associations’ report, A Current Glance at Women in the Law (January 2017) nearly half of law school attendees and graduates are female.
Girls are certainly taking their shot at evening up the score. 45% of the Associates in private law practice are now female. However, vestiges of the old guard remain. Only slightly more than 20% of law firm partners are women, and only 18% are equity partners. In corporate America, not even 25% of all the General Counsels are women.
While women still have some catching up to do, there is every reason to believe that someday soon we will indeed see gender equality in the field. If you’re a young woman considering a career in law, go for it! Join the remarkable female legal eagles who opened the door for women like you to rock the courtroom, or the board room.
We’ve Come a Long Way
According to Harvard Law School’s publication, The Practice, women were first admitted to the American Bar Association in 1918. They finally achieved equality in law school admissions in the 2000s. Today we have 3 Supreme Court justices, 2 U.S. attorneys general, the first women state and federal judges in many regions, the first women deans of Ivy League law schools, and thousands of other successful female leaders, including Elizabeth Dole, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama.
The Practice asserts that the advancement of women in law mirrors the progress of society in general: “The legal profession is one of the most powerful, well-remunerated, and respected in the world. Thus, women’s progress in the law is both a standard bearer and an emblem of progress in many cultures. The law not only plays a foundational role in a democracy, but is often a stepping stone to higher levels of leadership in business and public life.”
Envision joins Harvard Law in saluting the diverse group of women who have emerged as leaders in this field, giving women a voice in our country, and a role in key issues and decisions affecting our society.
Our First “Lady Lawyer”
In 1869, Arabella Mansfield (born Belle Aurelia Babb) became the first female lawyer in the United States. She took the Iowa state bar exam, even though at that time Iowa state law permitted only males in the field. Arabella challenged that discriminating law in court, forcing Iowa to legally welcome women and minorities into its bar. It was the first U.S. state to do so.
Arabella worked primarily as a teacher at Iowa Wesleyan College and DePauw University, and eventually as a university administrator and dean. She was also a leading activist in the women's suffrage movement, chairing the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1870, and working with Susan B. Anthony.
First Female U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Who was the first woman to sit on our nation’s highest court? You know the answer: Sandra Day O'Connor. In 1981, Ronald Reagan nominated her to the Supreme Court, with unanimous Senate approval. Earlier, she had earned an Economics degree from Stanford, and then moved on to graduate from Stanford Law School in 1952. Of course, at that time, lawyers primarily looked like Perry Mason. Even with a law degree from Stanford, Ms. O’Connor struggled to find work and eventually had to take a job without pay, at the San Mateo County attorney's office. She soon became deputy county attorney, and went on to be elected to two terms in the Arizona state senate before reaching the Supreme Court. There she was a key swing vote in many important cases, including the upholding of Roe v. Wade.
Today’s Supreme Court
Today we have 3 female Supreme Court Justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. All three have been instrumental in representing the priorities of American women. They played a key role in upholding the Affordable Care Act in 2015, and ruled that laws against same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg studied law at Harvard while raising her first child, and was the first woman to join the Harvard Law Review. In spite of her exceptional qualifications, she still faced strenuous discrimination and struggled to find a job, until a Columbia professor singled her out for recommendation to clerk for a U.S. District Judge. After two years as a clerk, she received a few job offers from law firms, but always at a much lower salary than her male counterparts. She joined the Supreme Court in 1993, after a long career of advocating for women's rights.
Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina (Puerto Rican) justice in the Supreme Court in August 2009, after serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for 10 years. She graduated from Yale Law School and immediately began prosecuting cases as the assistant district attorney of Manhattan in 1979. Oyez recognizes her as “the fearless federal trial court judge who saved Major League Baseball from a ruinous 1995 strike.”
In 2003, Elena Kagan became the first female dean of Harvard Law School, where she prohibited military recruiters on campus because of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Later she worked for 4 years at the White House as associate counsel for President Bill Clinton. In 2010, after serving as the first female solicitor general of the U.S. for a year, she joined the Supreme Court, becoming the youngest member of the court, as well as the only justice with no previous judicial experience.
Youngest Chief Prosecutor
Marilyn Mosby, State Attorney in Baltimore, Maryland is the youngest chief prosecutor in any major U.S. city (currently 37 years old). Early in her career, she was known for prosecuting sex offenders and campaigning for prosecutors to be allowed to introduce prior accusations against serial sex offenders during trial.
Only four months into her position as State Attorney in Maryland, she led the case against the officers accused in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.
First Black Female Attorney General
Prior to President Trump’s election, Loretta Lynch held the position U.S. Attorney General, nominated by President Obama in 2014. Earlier, working for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York City, she fought for social justice, prosecuting cases of civil rights, public corruption and violent crime. One of her most notable cases was the prosecution of the officers responsible for beating and sexually assaulting Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
During her tenure as Attorney General, Loretta indicted FIFA on 47 counts of money laundering and racketeering, and announced federal marriage benefits for same-sex spouses. She was also involved in the prosecution for the Charleston church shooting, and the investigation of the Chicago Police Department in the civil rights case involving Laquan McDonald. She was publicly recognized for suing the state of North Carolina over HB2, the controversial “bathroom bill,” which she denounced publicly as “state-sponsored discrimination.”
Is the legal field the right career path for you? As we’ve seen in the examples above, lawyers are instrumental in not only exposing crime and fighting for individual rights, but also for influencing social consciousness, through our country’s legal system.
Exactly 36 years ago, Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the first female Supreme Court Justice. You could be next! If you’d like to try this career path on for size, check out Envision’s hands-on career and leadership camps, especially:
Other Envision Blogs on Females in Leadership: