By: Beth Fegan
We live in a world where true gender equity has yet to be achieved in the legal field. With the majority of our firm made up of successful and talented women, we’re focused on forging a truly diverse and equitable industry where women and people of color don’t just have a seat at the table, but own the table.
In honor of Women’s History Month, and in order to foster a more representative workforce, it’s critical to remember the work of the women who came before us and lay the groundwork for our future. Below, we’re sharing some of the legal pioneers who have shaped the industry and defied the odds.
The first woman to graduate law school in the United States, Ada Kepley completed her studies in 1870 from what is now known as Northwestern University School of Law here in Chicago. Although her graduation was a feat among her all-male classmates, she was not allowed to join the Illinois state bar until nearly 11 years later in 1881. Kepley championed prohibition causes with a brief resignation from the Prohibition Party to focus on suffrage issues. Though she eventually moved on to other pursuits, her role as one of the first women to enroll in male-dominated law schools was a vital first step in challenging accepted norms.
Charlotte E. Ray
Charlotte E. Ray was the first Black female lawyer in the United States and the first woman to ever be admitted to practice in the District of Columbia. She was also a teacher at Howard University before she began studying law and ultimately earning her degree in 1872. Although she opened her own legal practice, unfortunately prevailing racist attitudes and practices prevented her from taking on clients, ending her career prematurely. Though the world has progressed in many ways, the law profession remains predominantly white, with reports from 2018 showing only 5% of attorneys are Black. We honor Ray today for taking the first step for Black women in the legal industry against racism.
Similar to Ada Kepley, Myra Bradwell attempted to become the first woman admitted to the Illinois state bar in 1870, but she was also denied. Instead, she became a political activist and legal publisher, successfully opening the doors for women to practice law after appealing the U.S. Supreme Court’s earlier dismissal.
Patsy Mink became the first Japanese-American female lawyer in Hawaii in 1959, and the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Mink initially registered for the bar exam in Hawaii, but was denied a job because of her interracial marriage. Undeterred, she started her own practice and founded the Oahu Young Democrats. She would later go on to write bills like Title IX, the Women’s Educational Equity Act, and more.
There are innumerable women whose contributions have carried us forward to today. As the legal field continues to evolve, it will be paramount to elevate the voices of women and people of color to create an industry that not only understands, but also acts to correct injustice. For more information on the contributions of women lawyers, visit the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations.