2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the first woman admitted to practice law in the United States. Arabella Mansfield was admitted to practice before the bar in her home state of Iowa in 1869. This first was quickly followed in 1870 when Ada Kepley became the first woman to graduate from a law school in the United States. In 1872, Charlotte E. Ray became the first African-American woman to be admitted to practice law. In recognition of the increasing importance of women in the field, legislation was passed in 1879 titled “An Act to relieve certain legal disabilities of women,” was passed allowing qualified women to be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States. Following passage of that law, Belva Lockwood was the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1880, she made her first argument before the Court.
These firsts have been followed by increasing numbers of women entering the legal field, and in the 20th century the number of women practicing law and working in other aspects of law, including service as Judges, grew significantly. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1981 was almost exactly 100 years after Belva Lockwood made her first appearance before that Court. At the time of her appointment to the Supreme Court Bench, Justice O’Connor observed, “As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.” Currently, three women serve on the Supreme Court and a fourth has been nominated to serve.
March is a month that has been designated to focus on the achievements of women and the Supreme Court Historical Society is pleased to honor those achievements. The Society’s Gift Shop carries a wide variety of titles written by, and about significant women in the legal field.