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First Women Lawyers: Women's History Month

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First Women Lawyers Around The World

Here is a brief overview of women lawyers who were recognized around the globe for their pioneering contributions to the world of law. This list is in no way complete and is based on information from Duke University Law website


Belva A. Lockwood

(Photo: U.S. Library of Congress)

As one of the first woman lawyers in the United States, Belva Lockwood was a prominent author and women's rights advocate during the mid-to-late 1800s.  She is the first woman admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court and was one of 15 women who enrolled at National University Law School in 1871.

After Law School, she was informed that she would not be given a degree because she was a woman. She later appealed the matter to President Ulysses S. Grant, who allowed her to receive her degree a week later and gain admittance to the D.C. bar. 

In late 1880, Lockwood became the first female lawyer to argue a case before the Supreme Court, with Kaiser v. Stickney and later United States v. Cherokee Nation. In 1884 and 1888, Lockwood ran for president as the candidate for the National Equal Rights Party.

[Sources: U.S Supreme CourtBritannicaWikipedia]


Florence Allen

Florence Ellinwood Allen was the first woman to serve as a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court in 1922, making her the first woman to serve on the highest court within the United States. She was also one of the first two women to become a United States federal judge. 

Born in Salt Lake City but raised in Cleveland, an injury sidelined her original career path as a concert pianist, so she chose to explore her interests in politics and law. She earned a law degree from New York University Law School in 1913. 

After completing law school, Allen returned to Cleveland where she began her own law practice. Throughout her legal career, she became a well-known attorney and advocate for women's rights, eventually appointed to serve as Assistant Prosecutor of Cuyahoga County in 1919 and elected judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1920. 

After serving on the Ohio Supreme Court, Justice Allen became the first woman to serve on a federal court of appeals when President Roosevelt appointed her to the Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. She went on to become chief judge before retiring in 1959. In 2005, Justice Allen was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. 

[Sources: Ohio History ConnectionWikipedia]


Genevieve Cline

Genevieve Rose Cline was the first woman federal judge nominated by President Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Cline served as an Article 1 federal judge to the U.S. Customs Court for 25 years, becoming an advocate for consumer protection and women's right early in her career. 

Before her stint as a federal judge, Cline went into private practice with her brother, John, after earning her Bachelors degree in Law from Baldwin-Wallace College in 1921. She was then chosen by President Warren Harding to serve as an appraiser of merchandise at the port of Cleveland, where she held that role for six years. 

Cline also held a six-year term as president of the Cleveland Federation of Women's Clubs and chaired the Ohio Federation of Women's Clubs for two years.

[Sources: U.S CourtsEncyclopediaOhio History ConnectionWikipedia]


Constance Baker Motley

In 1946, Constance Baker Motley went to work as a civil rights lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). In 1950, Motley penned the original complaint in the school segregation case Brown v. Board of Education. During her time with LDF, she defended civil rights notables including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders, as well as James Meredith in his pursuit to attend and integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962. 

As the first Black women nominated to the federal bench in 1966, Constance Baker Motley was a key strategist during American's civil rights movement. She was the first Black woman to argue at the Supreme Court, winning nine of ten landmark civil rights cases. 

In 1964, Motley became the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate. Within two years, Judge Motley was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

[Sources: Connecticut HistoryU.S CourtsWikipedia]


Tcheng Yu-hsiu

Tcheng Yu-hsiu is the first woman lawyer and judge in China's history, and a noted social and gender revolutionary.

Born in 1891, she defied many cultural traditions, including the ancient custom of foot binding, and refused an arranged marriage because it conflicted with her personal beliefs and aspirations. 

Relocating to France in her teens, she made a home in Paris in 1914 and went on to enroll at the University of Paris to study law. She gained notoriety in 1917, when she returned to China to advocate for Chinese aid to the Allied effort in World War I. In 1919, she was selected as the sole female Chinese delegate to attend the Paris Peace Conference.

Yu-hsiu received her doctoral degree from the Faculty of Law of Paris in 1926. That same decade, Yu-hsiu briefly became a judge in the French extraterritorial courts in Shanghai. 

She served as president of Shanghai University Law School from 1931 to 1937.

[Sources: Google Arts & CultureDC Writers' Homes'Wikipedia]

Jane Bolin

Jane Bolin became the first Black woman to serve as a judge in the United States in 1939. She was the first Black woman to graduate Yale Law School and the first Black woman to join the New York City Bar Association. 

In 1937, she became the first Black person to serve as an assistant corporation counsel in New York City. Following her appointment, Bolin was the only Black woman working as a judge in the U.S. for 20 years. 

Bolin served on the boards of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the New York Urban League and was a legal advisor to the National Council of Negro Women.

[Sources: BiographyLos Angeles Times archivesWikipedia]