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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

Justice Prevails for State's First Female Attorney


Los Angeles' female lawyers are likely to feel a special satisfaction Friday when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the nation's highest court, officially renames the downtown Criminal Courts Building after California's first female attorney.

The christening of Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center is a testament to the tenacity of the woman who is credited with multiple firsts in the profession and who paved the way for the thousands of women who followed her.

Foltz was the first woman admitted to the state's first law school, the first woman to practice law in California, the first female notary public in the state, the first woman to serve as deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County, the founder of the public defender system in the United States and a determined suffragist.

Clara Shortridge was 15 when she eloped with Iowa farmer Jeremiah Foltz in 1865. Seven years later, she had given birth to three of her five children when her husband, desperate for work, pulled up stakes and set out for Portland, Ore., where he found a clerk's job at starvation wages.

She had to start a dressmaking business to make ends meet. But when the local sheriff took her sewing machine to pay her husband's debts, and no attorney would argue her case, her desperation turned into the anger that would lead her first to the women's suffrage movement and later into law.

She was pregnant with her fifth child when she and her family moved in 1875 to San Jose, where her husband sold real estate. But he soon abandoned her and the children, taking with him what little money they had to spend on train fare to Oregon to see another woman. She divorced him.

As the sole breadwinner, she began earning speaking fees, lecturing on suffrage.

"Did God fail in his last crowning work when he made woman, that she is not the equal of man? Genius, talent, hard labor know no sex," she said in her standard speech.

Her orator's gifts and passion for the limelight only whetted her appetite for learning.

Determined to earn a better living, one that would also help her in her struggle for women's rights, she began reading lawbooks. She found that the only prerequisites to joining the state bar were that an applicant be a 21-year-old white male citizen of good moral character and possess the necessary "learning and ability."

Because her ability was as great as her ambition, she took action. She and suffragist Laura deForce Gordon, the publisher of a small newspaper in Northern California, drafted the "Woman Lawyer's Bill," substituting "person" for "white male" in the state code provision. Though women were not allowed to vote, the two found an influential politician to get their measure before the Legislature.

When her bill came to a vote in 1878, Foltz made the trip to Sacramento in the caboose of a cattle train, her pockets empty except for hard biscuits and boiled eggs she had brought with her.

"The bill met with a storm of opposition such as had never been witnessed upon the floor of a California Senate," she wrote in her autobiography. "Narrow-gauge statesmen grew as red as turkey gobblers mouthing their ignorance against the bill, and staid old grangers who had never seen the inside of a courthouse seemed to have been given the gift of tongues and then delivered themselves of maiden speeches eloquent with nonsense."

Opponents said they feared that a female lawyer's "seductive and persuasive arts" would sway juries. When they were lawyers, women would next demand to become jurors and even judges. Others painted a picture of a female lawyer blushing and stammering when she had to cross-examine a witness on a sexual matter.

In March 1878, with the help of Assemblyman Grove L. Johnson, the father of future progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson, the bill passed by two votes. But if Gov. William Irwin did not sign it before midnight the next day, it was doomed to die.

Not to be deterred, Foltz slipped past two guards, entered Irwin's office and persuaded him to sign.

Then she hit the lawbooks again and, in a flurry of publicity, passed a three-hour oral bar exam and became California's first female lawyer.

After winning several cases involving divorce and larceny, she realized that she needed formal legal schooling. She and Gordon enrolled at the University of California's Hastings Law School, to the jeers and mockery of the young male students.

In class, when Foltz coughed or turned a page or moved her chair, her classmates did the same. On the third day, the women were told to leave. They sued.

In court, the school's attorney complimented her on her grace and beauty but said female lawyers were dangerous to justice because "an impartial jury would be impossible when a lovely lady pleaded the case of the criminal."

Broader education, he argued, "would make a woman less womanly" and thus "destroy our homes." He contended that a feminine presence might be distracting to "serious male students."

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