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This article was originally published in June 2018 with updates made on March 9, 2023.
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Today's progress toward a more equitable world is the result of an array of historically marginalized voices speaking up against adversity. Women in law, particularly, have been uniquely positioned throughout modern history to create lasting change, not only by stepping into a male-dominated field but also by positively shaping the larger world through policy, litigation, and advocacy.
Although there's still work to be done, incredible progress has been made: Women now make up 38% of all lawyers in the US, breaking down barriers and paving the way for future generations.
In this post, we will explore some of the groundbreaking achievements of well-known female attorneys, both past and present, how they have shaped the industry we know today, and why their impact is important for future generations.
Historically, women have faced significant obstacles and discrimination when pursuing a law degree or being admitted to the bar, with many being denied entry or facing institutional barriers designed to exclude them. Despite progress made since the early 1900s, women still faced an uphill battle being accepted into leadership positions or taking on important roles within the industry. Gender bias, wage discrimination, and lack of diversity and representation, continued to be major obstacles. These notable female attorneys helped pave the way for future generations by breaking down barriers, advocating for greater equality, and challenging stereotypes.
January 13, 1850 – January 4, 1911
Charlotte E. Ray is thought to be the first female attorney in U.S. history. She attended Howard University, taking classes in law, even though she knew that women were not admitted to the bar. She graduated in 1872 as Howard’s first Black woman legal graduate and was the first woman to be admitted to the District of Columbia bar. While she struggled to retain clients due to her gender and race, Ray was the first woman to practice and argue in the District of Columbia Supreme Court in the case Gadley v. Gadley in 1875.
Impact: Her persistence and eventual admittance to the bar was used as precedent for female lawyers in other states to gain admission to their bars.
October 24, 1830 – May 19, 1917
Belva Lockwood was one of the first female attorneys and the first female to run for United States President. Lockwood attended the National University Law School in Washington, D.C., starting classes at age 40. Finishing her degree in 1873, the university refused to grant her diploma on the basis of her gender. In 1876, the United States Supreme Court denied her application to the bar stating, “None but men are permitted to practice before us as attorneys and counselors.” Lockwood petitioned male attorneys and members of Congress to create legislation allowing qualified women to be admitted to the bar and the “Lockwood Bill” was signed into law in 1879. In 1880, she became the first woman to argue before the United States Supreme Court in Kaiser v. Stickney (102 U.S. 176). Lockwood declared herself a third-party candidate for president in 1884 and 1888, despite not being able to vote, running her campaign as part of the Equal Rights Party.
Impact: Lockwood’s determination to see female attorneys treated equally led to the passing of the “Lockwood Bill” securing a woman’s right to be admitted to the bar.
September 14, 1921 – September 28, 2005
Constance Baker Motley was the first Black woman to argue in front of the United States Supreme Court. She graduated from Columbia Law School in 1946 and went to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) legal staff. During her time with the NAACP, Motley argued 10 cases (winning 9 of them) to the Supreme Court and argued countless other cases on racial discrimination, often risking her own safety to travel across the country. Motley worked closely with future United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall, during the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. After leaving the NAACP, Motley became the first Black woman in the New York State Senate, and in 1965, she became the first woman elected as the Manhattan Borough president. In 1966, President Johnson appointed Motley to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York where she continued to fiercely protect constitutional rights.
Impact: Motley was a critical force in the civil rights movement arguing cases that have shaped the legal landscape today. She helped break down barriers and create new opportunities for women and minorities in the legal field.
Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman nominated and confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. O’Connor graduated from Stanford Law School where she worked on the Board of Editors for the Stanford Law Review. O’Connor struggled to find employment after graduation due to her gender and began working as the San Mateo County Attorney for free. In 1965, O’Connor began working as an Assistant Attorney General for Arizona and was appointed to fill a vacant Arizona State Senate seat in 1969. She was re-elected to that role twice, serving as the first female majority leader in any state senate. President Ronald Reagan nominated O’Connor to the United States Supreme Court in 1981, and she was unanimously approved by the Senate, becoming the first woman appointed to the bench. O’Connor retired from the United States Supreme Court in 2006.
Impact: O’Connor paved the way for women to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Her rulings while on the bench helped shape the laws around gender equality, voting rights, and religious freedoms.
Anita Hill is an attorney and professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. She graduated from Yale Law School in 1980 and began working at a private law firm in Washington D.C. Shortly after, she became a legal advisor to future Supreme Court Associate Justice, Clarence Thomas. She accepted a teaching position at Oral Roberts University in 1983 and became the first Black tenured professor at any institution in 1989 working at the University of Oklahoma. When Thomas was nominated to the United States Supreme Court in 1991, Hill testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on sexual harassment she faced while working with Thomas at the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). She faced heavy scrutiny for her testimony, which included allegations of inappropriate conversations and sexual advances by Thomas. After her testimony, Hill continued to teach and advocate for racial and gender equality.
Impact: As a result of Hill’s testimony, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, solidifying protection for employees facing discrimination. A year later, reports of discrimination had increased 50% and employers started requiring sexual harassment training programs.
July 21, 1938 – November 7, 2016
Janet Reno was the first female, and second longest-serving United States Attorney General. She graduated with an LL.B. (later renamed a Juris Doctorate) from Harvard Law School in 1963, where she was one of only 16 women in her class of 500 students. Reno started her career in private practice and went back intermittently between state-level appointments. She became the staff director for the Judicial Committee of the Florida House of Representatives in 1971 where she later consulted on changes to the Florida criminal code. In 1978, she was appointed by the Governor of Florida to serve as the State Attorney in Miami becoming the first woman to hold a top prosecutor position in the state. While working as a State Attorney, Reno worked on prevention programs aimed at providing safe homes for children and helped establish the Miami Drug Court, which acted as a model for drug courts around the country. President Bill Clinton nominated Reno for United States Attorney General in 1993 and she was confirmed 98-0 by the Senate. Reno served as United States Attorney General until 2001, after which she went on to give speeches around the country on the criminal justice system.
Impact: Janet Reno broke the glass ceiling at the state and federal level by unapologetically being herself and opening federal executive positions of power up to other female attorneys based on skill and not who she knew or conforming to societal expectations of femininity.
March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court and champion of women’s rights and gender equality. Ginsburg attended Harvard Law School — attending both her own and her husband’s law school classes as he battled cancer. She transferred to Columbia Law School where she graduated first in her class in 1959. Unable to find a law job after graduation, Ginsburg taught at Rutgers School of Law before partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on two gender equality cases. One of those cases, Reed v. Reed (404 U.S. 71), became the first gender-based statute struck down on the basis of equal protection in 1971.
Ginsburg became the founding counsel of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and continued to practice and teach until she was appointed to the federal bench in 1980. President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the United States Supreme Court in 1993. On the Supreme Court, Ginsburg continued to advocate for equal rights and was most well known for her famous “dissent collars” - decorative collars worn with judicial robes when Ginsburg had written a dissent for the opinion being delivered.
Impact: Ginsburg pioneered changes to equal protection on the basis of sex and fiercely advocated for equal rights throughout her career. Ginsburg is one of the most well-known female attorneys, providing visibility to the power of women in the industry.
Gloria Allred is a founding partner at Allred, Maroko & Goldberg in Los Angeles, California, and the current president of the Women’s Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund. Allred attended Loyola University School of Law and holds an honorary Juris Doctorate (J.D.) from University of West Los Angeles School of Law.
Allred is known for taking high-profile, sometimes controversial cases, specifically ones protecting women’s rights. She frequently uses press conferences and media appearances to raise awareness of issues in her case and has frequently pressured organizations to investigate instances of sexual harassment and abuse. In 2004, Allred and her firm challenged the California denial of marriage licenses for same-sex couples, winning that case in 2008. Allred has represented many high-profile clients in gender discrimination and sexual harassment cases including representing women who have accused well-known Hollywood players like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, suing the Miss Universe Organization for disqualifying a transgender woman, and suing the Boy Scouts of America for expelling a woman due to her sexual orientation.
Impact: As a strong advocate for women’s rights, Allred has brought attention to issues like sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and reproductive rights.
Sonia Sotomayor is an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and is the first woman of color to serve on the Supreme Court. Sotomayor was born to Puerto Rican immigrants and primarily spoke Spanish until the age of 9. She graduated from Yale Law School in 1976 as one of the few Latino law students. She began her career as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan and entered private practice in 1984. Sotomayor was nominated to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1991 becoming the first Hispanic federal judge in New York State. She was later nominated to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997 and served as a member of the Second Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts. Sotomayor was nominated to the United States Supreme Court in 2009 becoming the second jurist to be nominated to three different judicial positions by three different presidents. During her time on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor has been a consistent voice for the protection of civil rights and transparency of the Court.
Impact: Sotomayor has broken down barriers for women and people of color in the legal profession and used her position on the United States Supreme Court to advance the civil protections for all Americans.
Loretta Lynch was the first Black woman to be confirmed as the United States Attorney General. She graduated from Harvard Law School in 1984 and began her career in private practice. She was appointed and served twice as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, first in 1999 and again in 2010. In 2014, Lynch was nominated for and confirmed as United States Attorney General becoming the first Black woman and second woman overall (after Janet Reno) to hold the position. During her tenure, she oversaw many high-profile cases and was a vocal advocate for pay equity and female representation in leadership. Lynch has since returned to private practice, chairing the Civil Rights and Racial Equity Audits practice at Paul, Weiss.
Impact: Lynch is a tireless advocate for equality both as a private attorney and while serving as the Attorney General. Her commitment to gender equality has inspired countless women to pursue a career in law or fight for equality in their own industry.
It’s important to recognize these enormous impacts are what made these changemakers famous, but there are countless other women in law not represented in this list who have made large and small contributions to moving the needle forward for women’s rights. And there’s still a long way to go. Examples like these women are helpful reminders despite adversity, all efforts add up when it comes to making a more equitable future for all.
Watch how attorney-author Margaret Witherup is empowering others in the legal industry:
If you're inspired by these women, find out how you can be a changemaker and advocate for gender diversity in the legal profession.