This Women’s History Month we’re taking a moment to highlight some historic firsts for American women. Learn how these women fought their way into the world of law and paved the way for future generations of female attorneys. We’re inspired by the courage and tenacity of the women profiled below, and their stories help us remember why we do this work: to build toward “firsts” of our own, together! (Courtesy of Law Preview, Emily Mermell)
Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1911)
Charlotte E. Ray was born in New York City in 1850. After graduating from college in 1869, Ray became a teacher at Howard University.
Charlotte Ray graduated from the Howard University School of Law on February 27, 1872, and was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar on March 2, 1872, making her the first black female attorney in the United States. She was also admitted as the first black female to practice in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia on April 23, 1872. Ray eventually stopped practicing because she was unable to maintain a steady client flow due to racial and sexist prejudice.
- First African-American female lawyer in the United States
- First female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar
- First female admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia
Jane Bolin (1908-2007)
Jane Bolin was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1908. At 16, she enrolled at Wellesley College where she was one of only two black freshmen. Bolin graduated in the top 20 of her class in 1928.
Although Bolin was strongly discouraged from applying to Yale Law School due to her race, she was admitted and graduated in 1931 as the first black woman to receive a law degree from Yale.
On July 22, 1939, Mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, appointed Bolin as a judge making Bolin the first black woman to serve as a judge in the United States. Bolin proceeded to be the only black female judge in the country for twenty years.
- First African-American woman to graduate from Yale Law School
- First African-American woman to serve as a judge in the United States
Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)
Constance Baker Motley was born in 1921 in New Haven, Connecticut. Baker was inspired to attend law school after hearing a speech by Yale Law School graduate George Crawford, a civil rights attorney for the New Haven Branch of the NAACP.
Motley attended New York University in 1943 and received her law degree from Columbia Law School in 1946. During Baker’s second year of law school, future U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice, Thurgood Marshall, hired her as a law clerk.
In 1950, Motley wrote the original complaint in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. She was also the first African-American woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court (Meredith v. Fair). Motley was successful in nine of the ten cases she argued before the Supreme Court.
Motley became the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s (LDF) first female attorney. Motley went on to become Associate Counsel to the LDF, making her a lead attorney in many significant civil rights cases.
Motley was elected to the New York State Senate in 1964, making her the first African-American woman to sit in the State Senate.
- First African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary
- NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s first female attorney
- First African-American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court
- First African-American woman to sit in the State Senate
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933- )
“My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.” ― Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in 1933, in Brooklyn, New York. After Ginsburg’s mother was not permitted to go to college, she felt strongly about Ginsburg continuing her education. Ginsburg graduated from Cornell University in 1954 as the highest-ranking female in her class.
After having a child in 1955, Ginsburg decided to enroll in law school and attended Harvard University where there were only nine women in her class. While attending Harvard, Ginsburg was invited to a dinner with her fellow female classmates and the Dean of Harvard Law where he asked the women, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”
She was nominated as an Associate Justice for the Supreme Court of the United States by President Bill Clinton. Ginsburg was the second female justice on the SCOTUS and the first Jewish female justice.
Today, Ginsburg is 86 years old and has beaten both pancreatic and colon cancer. She is currently the oldest justice on the SCOTUS and has no plans to retire any time soon.
- First woman to serve on the editorial staff of the Harvard Law Review
- First woman to be hired with tenure at Columbia University School of Law
- First Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court
First Supreme Court justice to officiate at a same-sex marriage ceremony