Remembering the achievements of pioneering women in law and government

To fully understand and, more importantly, appreciate the professional success women now enjoy, requires a brief history primer. While women today in law and government continue their struggle to overcome glass ceilings or sticky floor barriers, tremendous progress has been made by many women in a relatively short time frame. Consider the following:

1. MYRA BRADWELL passed the Illinois Bar Exam with high honors in 1869 and was on her way to becoming one of America’s first woman lawyers. Despite an appeal to the state Supreme Court, she was refused admission because of her gender. She was publisher and editor of Chicago Legal News and used its pages to advocate for women’s rights, and for property ownership rights by women. She ran her own business under a special charter allowing a married woman to do so. In 1892 she was admitted to the Illinois Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court.

2. President Grant had to intervene to get BELVA BENNETT LOCKWOOD her diploma from National University Law School. For three years she lobbied Congress to pass a bill to allow women counselors to plead before the nation’s highest tribunal. In 1879 she became the first woman to practice law before the United States Supreme Court.

3. In the late 1870s, ESTHER McQUIGG MORRIS was elected justice of the peace in South Pass City, Wyoming, the first woman in the world to hold that office. At age 55 in 1869, this charming, reserved lady held a tea party for the candidates for the state legislature. She got a promise from each of the candidates that if elected, he would introduce a bill for women’s voting rights. The winner kept his word, and surprisingly, on December 10, 1869, for the first time anywhere on earth, women were given the legal right to vote.

4. BARBARA JORDAN was the first woman and first African American to enter Boston University Law School. She was also the first African American elected to the Texas State Senate and to be elected from a Southern state to Congress. She was also the first African American woman to be the main speaker at a national party convention—the Democratic National Convention in 1976.

5. SANDRA DAY O’CONNOR was admitted to the bar in California, but took up practice in Arizona where she became Assistant Attorney General (1965-69) and then state senator. She accepted a position in government after firms agreed to hire her only as a law clerk. She was superior court judge of Maricopa County and judge of the Arizona Court of Appeals. In 1981 President Ronald Reagan nominated her as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court, the first woman to attain that office.

6. On March 12, 1993, JANET RENO of Florida became the first woman United States Attorney General, appointed by President Bill Clinton.

7. RUTH BADER GINSBURG was nominated as the second woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. As a lawyer she had argued six cases concerning women’s rights before the Supreme Court and won five of them.

8. MARY ROBINSON, a lawyer, was elected the first woman president of Ireland with 52.8 percent of the votes in a run-off election in 1990. She was opposed by both of the two largest Irish political parties. She had campaigned for legalizing both divorce and contraception.

9. SUSAN B. ANTHONY is the woman most closely identified with the American women’s suffragette movement. In 1872, she led a group of women in Rochester, NY to vote illegally in the national election to test the right to vote under the 14th Amendment. She was arrested, tried, and fined. She never lived to cast a legal ballot.

10. Early on the morning of September 6, 1870, LOUISE ANN SWAIN, age 70, of Laramie, Wyoming, fastened a clean apron over her housedress and walked to the polls. She carried an empty pail for yeast to be purchased at a bakeshop on the way home. She voted and thus became the first woman in the world to cast a vote in a public election.

11. JEANETTE RANKIN was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1916 from Montana. She was a pacifist, and along with 48 others voted against the U.S. declaring war on Germany in 1917. In 1941 she cast the only “no” vote in U.S. Congress against declaring war on Japan and entering World War II.

12. On November 9, 1924, NELLIE TAYLOR ROSS was elected in Wyoming as the nation’s first woman governor. MIRIAM “MA” FERGUSON of Texas was elected the same day, but was installed January 20, 1925.

13. When FRANCES PERKINS was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to be Secretary of Labor in 1933 she became the first woman to hold a cabinet post in the United States. Her tenure lasted throughout the Roosevelt administration, making her the second-longest-serving cabinet member in U.S. history.

14. LIZ HOLTZMAN became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in 1972 at age 31. She defeated an opponent who had been in office for 50 years. Because she had little money to spend, she campaigned outside Brooklyn movie theatres where thousands were lined up to see The Godfather.

15. In 1969, SHIRLEY CHISHOLM, from Brooklyn, the first African American woman in Congress, announced her intention to become the first African American and female candidate for the presidency of the United States. In 1984, she founded the National Political Congress of Black Women.

The achievements of these pioneering women laid the ground work for the opportunities and success we now enjoy in law and politics. These women, among many others, deserve our collective respect and admiration.

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November 2003Volume 9Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)