In honor of International Women’s Day, we would like to take the time to highlight some of the powerful leading ladies of law. Women do not get enough credit for the essential impact they have globally. Here at Rob Levine & Associates, we are proud to have a diverse group of brilliant women, who uphold the great work we do at our law offices. We have great confidence that the women in our offices today, will be the women going down in history tomorrow. Thank you to all the women on team Levine.
When women wanted freedoms, they had to reach out and take it themselves. This is the common origin story that inspired the many great women that paved the way for today’s female presence in the justice system. Since the early 1600s, there has been a subtle push for the representation of women in the courtroom. Margaret Brent, an English immigrant who lived in Maryland, is one of the first known women to appear in court at the start of the 13 colonies. She would never receive the title of an attorney, but she marks the beginning of a social and ethical shift for women’s rights.
The first U.S. female attorney was Arabella Mansfield, a local Iowan, who in 1869, passed the bar with high scores despite the Iowa statute, only allowing access to white men over 21. One of Mansfield’s first legal actions was challenging Iowa courts to change its statute, allowing women to take the bar. Because of Mansfield’s determination, Iowa was the first state to allow women to take the bar to become attorneys.
Ten years later, this same determination would help facilitate one of the biggest laws put in place, giving women the chance to be impactful members of the highest level of the justice system. The 1879 Landmark law was passed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who admitted women as members of the Supreme Court as well as allowing them to submit and argue cases in front of the court. The Supreme Court takes some of the highest-profile and complex cases in all 50 states. Giving women the space to be a part of this would have a positive impact on the justice system for decades to come.
Belva Lockwood, an attorney, politician, and author, would become the first woman to argue a case in front of the supreme court. Lockwood gained the title of the first woman to argue a case but, in 1923, Florence King would be the first woman ever to win a case argued in front of the Supreme Court.
Winning a case at the Supreme level is an amazing feat for any attorney, but King truly made history that year. This feat had a lasting impact on the women’s suffrage movement and the legal system for years to come.
Justice in the Judicial System
While some women decided to master the skill of persuasion to make a change, some chose to determine the final say in the courtroom. After the 1920s ratification of the 19th Amendment, which allowed women the right to vote, now more women were being appointed judgeship positions.
Burnita Shelton Matthews was the first woman appointed as a U.S. District Court Judge in 1949. She studied law at what would become the George Washington University School of Law and moved on to become a Master of Patent Law.
Constance Baker Motley was the first African American to be appointed a federal judiciary for the U.S District Court, specifically for the Southern District of New York. After her 1966 appointment by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Motley later became Chief Judge in 1982. This was the first time an African American woman held this position in the state of New York. This was not only a huge win for women, but the African American community. She was a leader for this very vulnerable population during the fight for civil rights.
Women & The Supreme Court
In 1981, Ronald Regan appointed the first-ever female to the U.S. Supreme Court by the name of Sandra Day O’Connor. Justice O’ Connor broke over 150 years of inequality against women in the Supreme Court. More space was made for further female representation by a now well-regarded Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Justice Bader Ginsburg was the second woman to be elected to Supreme Court and the first Jewish woman selected. She created representation for women of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. Justice Bader Ginsburg would make history with her liberal views on gender equality and the separation of church and state.
It’s amazing to think that these positions of power held by women were considered an impossible accomplishment not long ago.
As it stands today, the representation of women in the legal system is still reaching new heights. In February of 2022, President Joe Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first African American woman to sit on the Supreme Court. For most of history, our legal system has not been an accurate representation of what America looks like. America is a melting pot of a variety of ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds, with more than half of the population being female! This is ironic as most of today’s leadership positions are held by middle aged white men.
As we move forward in the fight for women’s equality in the legal sphere, we must remember the countless brave and ambitious women who dedicated their lives, characters, and freedoms, to make change for upcoming generations of leading ladies in law.