Surely you know that the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court was Sandra Day O’Connor. But did you also know that in 1638, Margaret Brent arrived in the colony of Maryland and became the first woman lawyer in America? What about Arabella Mansfield’s achievement as the first woman admitted to the bar in the United States in 1869? And have you heard of Charlotte Ray? In 1872, she became the first African American woman admitted to a formal bar organization in the United States when she joined the District of Columbia bar.
The list of women who broke down barriers in the legal profession is much longer than many people realize. Yet it’s impossible to appreciate the gains women have made without understanding the challenges they’ve faced on their journeys. Here we profile five women who changed the legal world in subtle and major ways. They weren’t successful in every legal battle they waged. But because they had the courage to wage the battles of their day, their contributions should never be forgotten.
A Woman of Presidential Timbre
It took a woman to enforce Prohibition. In 1921, President Warren Harding appointed Mabel Walker Willebrandt assistant attorney general and head of enforcement for the controversial and much-ignored nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol formally called the Volstead Act. In that role, Willebrandt earned $110 a month, just $10 more than she earlier earned as a school principal, according to a 2000 Los Angeles Times profile.
Just five years out of law school when Harding hired her, Willebrandt had been a public defender in Los Angeles who had represented 2,000 prostitutes, according to Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition. She not only represented the women, but she also pushed hard to ensure that the men who sought out her clients’ services were hauled to court, too. Willebrandt then gained a name by starting a successful private practice with two men from her law school graduating class, prompting statewide leaders to put her on Harding’s radar.
Willebrandt didn’t support Prohibition, nor did she respect her boss, Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who she considered an unqualified political hack. But she took her job seriously. She created a flying squad of lawyers to step in for local U.S. attorneys who obstructed the enforcement of Prohibition through incompetence or corruption, reported Burns. She pushed for, and got, a flotilla of Navy and Coast Guard vessels to intercept alcohol smugglers at sea. And she led a successful effort to infiltrate and arrest members of two of the nation’s biggest rum-running groups in Mobile, Alabama, and Savannah, Georgia.
“I refuse to believe that out of our 120 million population, 35 million eligible adults of whom can be reasonably counted as favoring Prohibition, it is impossible to find 4,000 men in the United States who cannot be bought,” Willebrandt reportedly proclaimed.
Less noted but perhaps more important were Willebrandt’s prison reforms, according to Encyclopædia Britannica. She spearheaded the effort to create the first federal reformatory for young male first-time offenders; it opened in 1926 in Chillicothe, Ohio. She also pushed for women-only prisons; the first began operating in 1927 in Alderson, West Virginia. Also launched were opportunities for inmate employment, starting with a shoe factory at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1925, the National Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor awarded Willebrandt a medal for her prison reform efforts.
Willebrandt campaigned hard for Harding’s successor, Herbert Hoover, but he nominated someone else as his attorney general. She resigned and reentered private practice. Again, she made a name for herself, this time in aviation law. Willebrandt was a pilot and acquaintance of Amelia Earhart, and she helped establish early airline industry regulations. In 1938, Willebrandt became the American Bar Association’s first female committee chairperson when she took the reins of the Committee on Aeronautical Law.
“If Mabel had worn trousers, she could have been president,” said her friend John J. Sirica, the federal judge who presided over the Watergate case.
Chosen by the People
Florence Ellinwood Allen started as a suffragist and then became a jurist.
After joining the Ohio bar in 1914, Allen launched her own practice and served as counsel to the Ohio Woman Suffrage Party, according to the National Women’s History Museum. She was appointed assistant prosecutor for Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland sits, in 1919. Just a year later—the year women gained the right to vote—supporters in the suffrage movement encouraged Allen to throw her hat into an election for a seat on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, according to the Ohio Supreme Court website.
In two days, the suffragists got the 2,000 signatures needed for Allen’s name to be placed on the ballot. She was elected on November 2, 1920, becoming the first woman elected to a judicial office in the United States. In Allen’s first year, she completed 892 cases, including three first-degree murder cases, one second-degree murder trial, and the perjury trial of the chief justice of the Cleveland Municipal Court.
Allen was again elected two years later, this time to the Ohio Supreme Court, becoming the first woman elected to any state’s highest court. In 1923, she wrote the majority opinion in Ohio Automatic Sprinkler Co. v. Fender, overruling prior decisions and holding that statutes requiring employers to guard dangerous machinery were enforceable and that employees injured by a machine on the job had the right to sue their employer.
Just 11 years later, President Franklin Roosevelt nominated Allen to be the first woman to sit on a U.S. court of appeals. She served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for 32 years and in 1958 became the first woman to serve as chief judge of a circuit court of appeals, according to the National Park Service website. Beginning in the 1930s, Allen was regularly promoted by women’s groups for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, reports the American Association of University Women.
Allen’s most important case may be the 1938 Tennessee Electric Power Co. v. Tennessee Valley Authority. In it, Allen held that the Tennessee Valley Authority Act empowered the Tennessee Valley Authority to control activities and produce electricity on the Tennessee River. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Allen’s decision, expanding the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause to regulate streams and waterways.
In 1955, Allen also struck a blow to segregation in Detroit Housing Commission v. Lewis. Relying on Brown v. Board of Education, Allen held the commission’s policy of separating applications for public housing on the basis of race—which resulted in segregated housing—was unconstitutional, according to the Women’s Hall of Fame. It marked the first time a federal court applied desegregation laws to public housing.
Lifelong Women’s Advocacy
Burnita Shelton Matthews became the first woman appointed to a U.S. district court when in 1949 President Harry Truman nominated her for the District of Columbia bench. At the time, according The New York Times, one of the court’s jurists said publicly, “Mrs. Matthews would be a good judge.. . . [There’s] just one thing wrong: she’s a woman.”
Truman, however, later said, “This was one appointment about which I had no misgivings, only genuine satisfaction,” according to The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law.
Matthews put herself through law school, graduating in 1919, by working at the Veterans Administration. She was admitted to practice, but the District of Columbia bar refused her check and application for membership.
Unbowed, Matthews became counsel to the National Woman’s Party (NWP). She helped draft and backed the Equal Rights Amendment when it was introduced in 1923, according to the Harvard University Library, where Matthews’ papers are archived. She drafted women’s rights laws, targeting those favoring men in inheritance and seeking equal pay for teachers. Matthews also took up the cause for women serving on juries, writing in 1927, “If there is one subject which all the women’s organizations are agreed upon, it is, probably, jury service by women. So . . . law makers may as well prepare for a battle royal.”
In 1928, Matthews scored a huge victory for the NWP in, of all things, a condemnation case. The NWP was located in a building scheduled for demolition to make way for the new home of the U.S. Supreme Court. She was unable to stop the condemnation proceedings. However, in court, Matthews demolished the government’s witnesses, who attempted to claim the building wasn’t the Old Capitol building that it had long been known to be, according to Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives. The jury awarded the NWP $299,200, the largest condemnation award at the time made by the U.S. government.
In her role as a judge, Matthews always chose women as law clerks. “The reason I always had women,” she told Third Branch, a newsletter published by the federal courts, “was because so often, when a woman makes good at something they always say that some man did it. So I just thought it would be better to have women. I wanted to show my confidence in women.”
Matthews joined the ABA in 1923. But throughout her career, she advocated that women also participate in women’s bar groups. Her contention: At the time, many bars still didn’t admit women, and even those that accepted women didn’t permit them to join committees or serve in leadership. Matthews’ headstone notes that she wished to be remembered for her appointment to the district court and as the “author of laws advancing the status of women.”
A Foe of Segregation
An appointment by President Lyndon Johnson to the District of Columbia City Council and a career as a District of Columbia Superior Court judge are impressive achievements.
But Margaret Austin Haywood is also hailed for her role in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., an early legal challenge to segregation. The case began in 1950, when 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell and three others went to Thompson’s Cafeteria in the nation’s capital and were refused service because they were black, according to Fight On!: Mary Church Terrell’s Battle for Integration. A few days later, they met with Haywood, who brought them to the municipality’s corporate counsel’s office to submit a complaint.
The city used that complaint to launch a lawsuit against the cafeteria owner in what came to be known as the Thompson restaurant case. Lower courts upheld Thompson’s discrimination. But the U.S. Supreme Court found that laws barring segregation passed in the 1870s—called “lost laws”—were still valid even though they hadn’t been enforced for seven decades. With that ruling, Thompson’s white-only service policy became unenforceable.
After graduating in 1940 from the Robert H. Terrell Law School in Washington, D.C., a night school for African Americans created by lawyers who volunteered their time as instructors, Haywood immediately began a five-year stint as an unpaid instructor there. The school eventually closed when black law students began being admitted to formerly all-white schools.
Haywood started her law career in private practice by partnering with her lawyer husband, according to her 1993 account in Rebels in Law: Voices in History of Black Women Lawyers. Their business partnership ended because he couldn’t tolerate the fact that she earned more than he did.
It was 25 years into her law practice when Johnson appointed Haywood as a District of Columbia councilwoman, a position she had no clue she was about to be offered until she was asked to meet with the president at the White House. Haywood said of her appointment, “I feel I am part of history,” reported The Washington Post. She sat on the council from 1967 to 1972.
In 1962, Haywood applied to be a juvenile court judge in an effort to become the first African American woman judge in the District of Columbia. However, Marjorie McKenzie Lawson, another African American woman, got the nod. When she was no longer going to achieve a first, Haywood said she lost interest in the judiciary. Yet a decade later, members of the local women’s bar met with the U.S. attorney general to advocate for Haywood to become a District of Columbia judge.
That led a second president, this time Richard Nixon, to call on Haywood to serve. Haywood stepped onto the bench as an associate judge on the District’s municipal court (later renamed the superior court) in 1972 and remained there until 1982, when she began two more decades as a senior judge.
Civil Rights for All
It wasn’t only Roe v. Wade that in 1973 established a constitutional right to privacy. Heard at the same time was a companion case, Doe v. Bolton, argued by Margie Pitts Hames. In Doe, Hames successfully argued that a Georgia law requiring abortions to be done in a hospital only after approval from a hospital committee was unconstitutional. Hames called the decision “a cornerstone for liberating women,” according to The New York Times.
Hames began her legal career in private practice in 1962, specializing in employment law. She became the first female partner at Atlanta’s Fisher & Phillips, a fact still touted on the firm’s website today. But her passion was civil rights. In 1968, she began volunteering for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group working to prevent confrontations between police and civil rights protestors, according to Atlanta-based Emory University, where Hames’ papers are archived.
Hames launched her own firm in 1971. She took a range of cases on such controversial issues as women’s rights, school desegregation, employment discrimination, and educational rights for special-needs children. She also represented several major abortion clinics in Atlanta. This representation led her to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue Doe.
She wasn’t always successful, but Hames never stopped fighting for causes in which she believed. After Doe, Hames began serving as counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the lawsuit it had filed in 1972 seeking metro-wide school integration in Atlanta; in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court handed Hames and the ACLU a loss, finding no legal basis for such a move.
In Drummond v. Fulton County Department of Family & Children’s Services, Hames failed to convince federal appellate judges that Georgia’s removal of a mixed-race foster child from a white couple for adoption into an African American family was a violation of the couple’s due process and equal protection rights. In Sinyard v. Foote & Davies, Hames was again unable to persuade an appellate panel to invalidate a labor agreement that prevented women from holding certain higher-paying jobs.
Hames was also on a team of lawyers who fought but failed to stay the execution of John Spenkelink. In 1979, he became the second person executed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia allowing the death penalty after a four-year hiatus following the 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision.
However, winning didn’t appear to be the only point Hames considered during her career, according to David Morath, an activist who worked closely with her on the Atlanta desegregation case. “She was very clearheaded and intentional about taking on cases that other lawyers wouldn’t touch.”
Perhaps that’s why Jack Greenberg, former counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, reportedly called Hames a “swashbuckling” lawyer.