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Monday, January 26, 2015

Clara Who?

For two weeks from Jan. 12 to 23 my home away from home was the 17-story criminal courts building in downtown Los Angeles. Notable trials here have included the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, the murder trial of Phil Spector and the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray for the death of Michael Jackson, among hundreds and hundreds of others.

Technically, the building is called the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. 

But who was Clara Shortridge Foltz? 

Before 1869, all attorneys in the U.S. were male. Yep, every single one.

Then along came a troublemaker named Arabella "Belle" Mansfield  (1846-1911) who took law courses, passed the Iowa state bar exam with flying colors and then had to sue the State of Iowa over its statute that said only males could practice law.

Next this rebel, Myra Colby Bradwell (1831-1894), ruffled feathers because Illinois was happy to admit a woman to the bar -- but not a married woman. She sued the State of Illinois and won.

And then along came Clara Shortridge Foltz (1839-1934), the first female attorney on the Pacific coast. Growing up in Indiana, her nose was usually in her father's law books.

She married, settled in San Jose, raised five children and eventually divorced her husband.

California prohibited women from practicing law. With the help of a state senator she wrote Senate Bill 66, known as the Woman's Law Bill, and lobbied tirelessly with legislators. In 1878 the senate and the assembly passed the bill, but Governor William Irwin threatened a veto. Refusing to take "no" for an answer, she pushed her way into his office and wore him down, er, persuaded him, until he signed it just minutes before the midnight deadline.

Clara's trailblazing work was just beginning. Women could now practice law in California but they couldn't study it at law school. After she and her friend Laura deForce Gordon applied to the University of California's Hastings School of Law and were denied because of their gender, she sued successfully for admittance of women on the same terms as men. Hastings appealed and the case went to the California Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court's decision.

All this took time, and in the interim she studied law in the offices of a few judges. On Sept. 4, 1878, she was the first woman admitted to the California bar.

But wait...there's more!

Defendants who could not afford their own attorneys went unrepresented in court. Clara founded the movement that led to the appointment of public defenders -- the blueprint for the system that remains in place today.
They called me the lady lawyer, a dainty sobriquet that enabled me to maintain a dainty manner as I browbeat my way through the marshes of ignorance and prejudice.
Her name is associated with a number of firsts in California: 
  • First woman admitted to the California Bar
  • First woman to serve as a legislative counsel
  • First woman to prosecute a murder case 
  • First woman to serve as a deputy district attorney 
  • First woman to serve as a district attorney
  • First woman to hold statewide office
After moving to Los Angeles, she devoted most of her time to women's suffrage with the full strength of her law practice. 

What many people don't realize is that women couldn't vote for their own right to vote. It was up to male voters to approve it, and that would take some doing. Under the guidance of Clara Shortridge Foltz and so many other determined women leaders, a huge campaign unfolded to get the attention of male voters in California. 

This was the social media of the day:

By a very narrow margin, California became the sixth state in the nation to approve women's right to vote.

Clara passed away in Los Angeles on Sept. 4, 1934. The pallbearers for her funeral included California Governor Frank Merriam and several prominent state and federal judges. 

Hers is the story of inspiration and hope, courage and tenacity, promise and possibility.

So the next time you serve on a jury, remember Clara Shortridge Foltz if the defense attorney or prosecutor is a female or if the defendant is represented by a public defender.

And give Clara a little shout-out whenever you pass that tall, rectangular box of a building. Her name is written all over it.

Many thanks to Snipview, History of Iowa, Chicago Historical Society, Online Archive of California, California Bar Journal, Authentic History, International Museum of Women.


  1. ....I bet your curiosity was piqued when, on break, you roamed the halls of the court building and discovered the placement of public art dedicated to herstory/history

  2. It was, Liz. The trouble was, there were some photos on the first floor but very little information. After I did the research and wrote the blog post, I thought about the boring video that is shown to everybody in the jury assembly room. If they would produce a video about Clara instead, I'm quite sure people would feel differently about jury service.

    1. I, like you, went home and researched it too. They would make a great combination - the art and a video playing off one another. It's a great idea...can you make that happen?

  3. I had no idea about all this. I thought the building was named after some eminent female judge of the 1950s or 60s. I really admire her tenacity through all those battles on behalf of women - I'd have given up at the first hurdle.

  4. I don't even remember the video and I served in November! The assembly room was crowded and some of us had to sit in an adjacent room for a while. Maybe they showed the video while I was out there.

    I had seen the photos but, like you said, I didn't see much information. Thank you for researching it.

  5. I do remember the video, basically mentions the jury system, etc and the reasons why you the juror serves, not very inspiring. Would be nice to mention the reasons behind the naming of the building. Thanks for doing the research!!!