Celebrating Women’s History Month: Influential Women Lawyers in History

March 9, 2023 Publications

This blog post honors just a few of the women attorneys who have influenced the practice of law in the United States. These women faced insurmountable obstacles and withstood gender barriers, racial barriers, and money barriers. Our profession is better because of their contributions.

Arabella Babb Mansfield. Mansfield was born in 1846 on her family’s farm in Iowa. By 1862, college admissions were declining as young men dropped out of college to fight in the Civil War, and universities began to accept more female students. Mansfield enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan College, where she graduated top of her class. She then taught political science, English and history at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Just a few years later, in 1868, she married her husband and together they studied law as apprentices in her brother’s law firm. In 1869, Mansfield passed the bar exam, although Iowa law restricted the bar to men over the age of 21. Later that same year, Iowa became the first state to admit women to the practice of law after Mansfield challenged the state statute barring her. The court ruled that women could not be denied the right to practice law and admitted them to practice law. However, Mansfield chose to work as a professor and activist. She was a member of the National League of Women Lawyers and the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1870.

Ada Kepley. In 1870, Kepley became the first woman in the United States to graduate from law school and earn a law degree. At the time of her graduation, women were not permitted to become members of the Illinois State Bar. The Illinois legislature passed a law allowing women to join the bar in 1872, but Kepley did not join until 1882.

Charlotte E. Ray. When Ray applied to the Howard School of Law, she did so under the name CE Ray to disguise her gender for admission. In 1872, she became the first African American woman to graduate from law school and the first to practice law officially in the United States, setting a precedent for women in other states seeking admission to the bar. Ray was considered one of the best corporate lawyers in the country. However, due to prejudice against African Americans and women, it was not possible for her to earn a living in private practice.[1] She later became a teacher, was involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and was a member of the National Association of Colored Women.

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Eliza Burton “Lyda” Conley. When Conley was born in 1869, her mother was a member of the Wyandotte tribe and her father was a Kansas farmer. She graduated from the Kansas City School of Law and was admitted to the Missouri bar in 1902. Conley is also credited with being the first woman to be admitted to the bar in Kansas in 1910. She is best known for being the first Native American woman to plead before the Supreme Court and for her activism and efforts to protect the Huron Indian Cemetery in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Born in 1823, Cary was an American-Canadian anti-slavery activist, journalist, publisher, teacher, and lawyer. Before the Civil War, Cary traveled the country speaking out against slavery and advocating full racial integration. She attended the 1855 Philadelphia Colored Convention, although women were never allowed to attend. She was the founder and editor of an anti-slavery newspaper called The Provincial Freeman, which circulated from 1853 to 1857. Using the power of the pen, Cary wove black activism into her writing and encouraged public discourse on black labor and women’s rights.[2]

During the Civil War, Cary served as a recruiting officer recruiting black volunteers for the state of Indiana. After the war she taught at the school for over 15 years. She then attended Howard University School of Law, graduating in 1883 at the age of 60. She was the second African American woman in the United States to earn a law degree. Cary was an active member of the National Woman Suffrage Association and testified before the US House Judiciary Committee. In 1998, Cary was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Jane Bolin. Bolin was born in 1908 in New York, where her father was a lawyer and the first African American to graduate from Williams College, and her mother was an immigrant from the British Isles. Born to a mixed-race couple, Bolin often faced discrimination from companies that refused to provide their services. She was influenced by articles and images of lynchings in The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After high school, she was denied admission to Vassar College because they would not accept black applicants. At age 16, she enrolled at Wellesley College, where she was one of two black freshmen, and in 1931 she became the first African American woman to graduate from Yale Law School. Bolin ran unsuccessfully for the New York State Assembly in 1936. In 1939, Bolin was appointed judge of the Domestic Relations Court, where she was the country’s only African-American judge for 20 years.[3] Judge Bolin sat on the bench for 40 years and was an activist for children’s rights and education.

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Mary Belle Grossman. Born in 1879, Grossman was a suffragist, lawyer, and judge. She worked from 1896-1912 in her cousin’s law firm as a stenographer and bookkeeper. In 1909 she enrolled in the evening program at Cleveland Law School. Cleveland Law School was the first law school in Ohio to admit women as students. She graduated in 1912 and passed the Ohio Bar that same year. In 1923, she began her own law practice. Grossman was the first attorney to practice in the Cleveland District Federal Court and one of the first two women to be elected to the American Bar Association. She was later elected City Judge of Cleveland, where she served as a judge until 1960.

Mary Florence Lathrop. Lathrop was born in 1865 and began her career as a journalist in Philadelphia. After contracting tuberculosis, she moved to Colorado, where she enrolled at the University of Denver and majored in law, graduating summa cum laude in 1896. Lathrop was the first woman to open a law practice in Denver, Colorado, the first woman admitted to the Colorado Bar Association and the Denver Bar Association, and she was one of the first two female members of the American Bar Association (ABA) and later became Vice President of the ABA. Lathrop also has the distinction of being the first woman to practice before the US Supreme Court.

Ruth Bader-Ginsburg. Born in 1933, Ginsburg attended Columbia Law School, where she graduated at the top of her class. In 1960, early in her legal career, Ginsburg encountered gender bias when she was denied clerkship positions because she was a woman. She was eventually hired as court clerk for Judge Palmieri of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. From 1961 to 1963 Ginsburg did research at Lund University in Sweden for a book she co-authored on civil procedure. When she lived in Sweden, she paid attention to the equality of women in the legal profession. There were significantly more law students, lawyers and judges. Her observations inspired her to campaign for equal rights for women in the United States.

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Ginsburg’s first position was a professor at Rutgers Law School in 1962, where she was paid less than her male counterparts. When she began teaching, there were fewer than 20 female law professors in the United States. In 1970, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first legal journal in the United States devoted exclusively to women’s rights. In 1972 she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and became General Counsel of the project in 1973. The Women’s Rights Project and related ACLU projects were involved in more than 300 cases of gender discrimination by 1974. She argued six cases of sex discrimination in the US Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976, five of which were won. Ginsburg was an experienced public speaker and litigator. Her work led to significant legal advances for women under the constitution’s equal treatment clause. It brought about significant changes in the law that prevented lawmakers from treating women and men differently.

Ginsburg was appointed to the US Circuit Court of Appeals by President Carter in 1980, and in 1993 President Clinton appointed her Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. The US Senate confirmed it by a vote of 97 to 3. She remained on the bench until her death in September 2020. She was 87 years old.

This blog was created by Diane Minear, attorney in the office of Spencer Fane Overland Park, Kansas. Visit spencerfane.com for more information.

[1] Chicago Legal News, October 23, 1897.

[2] “Leave This Slavery Cursed Republic”: Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Black Feminist Nationalism, 1852-1874, Atlantic Studies Global Currents, Volume 18, 2021 – Issue 4: Black Editorship in the Early Atlantic World.

[3] Wolf, Julie (February 18, 2016). “Judge Jane Bolin fought institutional racism in New York courts for decades.” The origin. Archived from the original on March 28, 2018. Retrieved March 28, 2018.