California’s First Woman Lawyer

by Malcolm Macdonald, June 14, 2017

In researching other items from the 1870s I ran across this note from a San Francisco newspaper in 1879: “Mrs. Clara S. Foltz appeared recently in the Nineteenth District Court to make a motion in a divorce suit. But the judge wouldn't let her make any motion until she was admitted to practice in the court, and pointed out the fact that her admission to practice before another district court did not entitle her to practice before his court. An attorney moved her admission, whereupon a committee was appointed to examine into the applicant's qualifications. They retired to the judge's chamber, put the usual interrogatories and recommended her admission, which the court then granted.”

Clara Shortridge was born in Indiana in 1849. During the Civil War her family moved to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where Clara attended a co-ed school, something of a rarity for the era. Near the end of 1864 she eloped with war veteran Jeremiah Foltz. Apparently Mr. Foltz was adept at procreation, but not at holding a job for long. The Foltz family, that included five children by the 1870s, made their way to Oregon then to the California Bay Area. Clara penned articles for publications such as the San Jose Mercury News to help make ends meet.

At some point in 1875 or '76 Jeremiah Foltz deserted his family. Fortunately, Clara Shortridge Foltz had made the acquaintance of Sarah Knox-Goodrich, who organized San Jose's first Women's Suffrage Association in 1869. The patronage of Mrs. Knox-Goodrich allowed Clara time to study law in the offices of a local judge. Clara Shortridge Foltz soon became an advocate for women's suffrage as well, supporting herself and her five children, in part, by giving public lectures.

When Clara felt ready to undertake the California bar examination there remained one daunting obstacle. At the time state law allowed only white males to be admitted to the California bar. Ms. Foltz had to write a bill herself to get things changed. A San Jose Mercury News article from September of 1878 paints much of the picture surrounding the outcome of Clara Foltz's attempt to change California's legislative wording from “white male” to “person.” The Governor referred to in the following quotation was Democrat William Irwin.

“As will be remembered by many, the bill granting women the right to practice law in this State was passed near the close of the last Legislature — and so near did it come to being stored away in the Governor’s capacious pockets, that his official signature was not attached thereto until within two minutes of midnight of the last day of the session. Although many friends of the measure in and out of the Legislature labored earnestly for the bill, its passage and especially its final approval by the Governor, were no doubt largely due to the personal efforts of Mrs. Clara S. Foltz, a lady of this city, at that time well advanced in her readings, and who had determined upon the profession of law as a means of honorable livelihood.

“With the passage of the bill the lady entered upon her readings with renewed zeal. Possessing a remarkably retentive memory, coupled with intellectual breadth, and a ready comprehension and natural taste for abstruse subjects, her progress, as might have been expected, has been rapid and thorough. In fact, but few male students have been able to accomplish like proficiency in so short a period. And when the fact is taken into consideration that Mrs. Foltz has a family of five small children to care for, and for most of the time she has done her housework unassisted, and occasionally been obliged to take to the lecture field as a means of piecing out her meagre income, it will be generally conceded that she is justly entitled to the honors just conferred upon her by our District Court in admitting her to the bar of said Court as a full-fledged attorney.

“The Committee appointed to examine her consisted of some of our first lawyers, who subjected her to a thorough test of her legal knowledge, and who unanimously certified to her entire fitness for advancement. Mrs. Foltz is the first woman admitted to the bar of this State.”

As the opening news story attests, Ms. Foltz had to continually prove her mettle for some years after her admission to the California bar. She practiced in the Bay Area, San Diego, Los Angeles and, in the late 1890s, in New York as something of a corporate attorney. Foltz spoke on behalf of women's suffrage and lived to see it finally become the law of the land with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Perhaps Clara Shortridge Foltz's farthest reaching achievement stems from her participation in a “Board of Lady Managers” at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where she espoused the radically new idea that indigent criminal defendants be provided free legal assistance, making Clara Shortridge Foltz the “mother” of all public defenders. Among many other firsts in her long career Clara Shortridge Foltz was the first female candidate for governor on the California ballot, in 1930, when she was 81 years of age. She died in September, 1934, of heart failure, after 56 years of practicing law.

(Tales of old California are often practiced at: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)

2 Responses to California’s First Woman Lawyer

  1. George Hollister Reply

    June 14, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    Great American story.

  2. malcolmlorne Reply

    June 17, 2017 at 11:53 pm

    For a full length look at Clara Shortridge Foltz readers may want to take a look at Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz by Barbara A. Babcock.
    Malcolm Macdonald

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