Thursday, March 1, 2018

Ladies Who Law

March is Women's History Month, making it a particularly good time to remember pioneering women in the legal profession. Even today, gender diversity at top law firms remains a challenge: as reported last month by the ABA Journal, only 22% of the major law firm partners are women, and even smaller numbers have represented those top firms in court appearances. But for America's earliest female lawyers and law students in the nineteenth century, a career in the law was even tougher.

The National Conference of Women's Bar Associations maintains a helpful page of Women Lawyer "Firsts", which attempts to untangle the many historical "first" facts for women in law. Generally, Myra Bradwell is one of the most famous examples, having been the first woman to appeal for admission to both the Illinois state bar and the U.S. Supreme Court bar in the 1860s and 1870s. Bradwell lost her earliest appeals, and by the time she was admitted to both bars in the 1890s, other "first" women had joined the profession. Arabella (Belle) Mansfield was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1869, and Belva Lockwood became the first woman admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar (in 1879).

The stories of these pioneering women are recounted in the 2013 book Rebels at the Bar: the Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America's First Women Lawyers (KF367 .N67 2013 & online). Additional works on both historical and current women in law can be found in the Duke University Libraries catalog with a subject search for "Women lawyers – United States". Results include autobiographies and biographies of female U.S. Supreme Court justices O'Connor, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan; stories of civil rights pioneers like Dovey Johnson Roundtree, and a history of Harvard Law School's female students in the class of 1964.

Interested in local history of "ladies who law"? The Fall 1997 issue of Duke Law Magazine, available online, celebrated "70 Years of Women at Duke Law" – from the time Miriam Cox became the first woman to enroll at Duke Law in 1927; to the first female graduates in 1935; to the first African-American female students in the class of 1974; to the appointment of Pamela Gann, the first female Dean, in 1988. (Professor Katharine Bartlett later served as Dean from 2000-2007, and the Law School will soon welcome its next Dean, Kerry Abrams, this summer.) The magazine issue includes a timeline of American women in law as well as profiles of Duke Law alumnae.

For help with locating these or other resources about women in the legal profession, be sure to Ask a Librarian.