6 Iconic Female Lawyers in History
As of 2021, approximately 40% of lawyers in the United States were made up of females. Although this is a significant increase from 70 years ago when only 3% of lawyers were women, the latest statistics show that men are still the dominating gender amongst legal professionals. Yet, regardless of the majority of lawyers being comprised of men, women have undeniably played a substantial role in the legal industry, and have made some of the most impressive and trailblazing lawyers in history.
These iconic female lawyers' impact on shaping the world we live in now is evident, as statistics show that more and more women are attending law school than ever before in history.
Here are six badass, glass-ceiling-shattering, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer female lawyers in history who changed the world as we know it.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
You know her as many things— from former first lady of the United States, to former United States Senator, to former US presidential candidate. She has unarguably one of the most impressive political resumes of any woman in history.
Hillary graduated from Yale school as one of only 27 women in her class. Yet rather than pursuing a job in a big firm, she turned towards advocacy, working for the Children's Defense Fund. Her public service led to the historical legislation that would require quality education for students with disabilities who up until then were not offered equal education.
After her marriage to Bill Clinton and during his years as governor of Arkansas, she continued to run a highly successful law practice and was deemed one of the nation’s 100 most influential lawyers twice by the National Law Journal.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
From a modest working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn to one of the most influential women in a male-dominated field, not only was she the second female ever to join the U.S. Supreme Court, but also the first Jewish woman.
When she started law school at Harvard as only one of 8 women in a class of 500, she was already a mother. Yet despite the challenge of balancing motherhood with law school, she persisted. Not only did she persevere, but she also graduated first joint in her class.
She went on to become one of the few female law professors at Rutgers Law School as well as Columbia Law school, which was unprecedented at the time. Yet despite her outstanding career, she continued to encounter discrimination as a female. As such, she fought vehemently for gender equality and served as director of the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU. In 1980 she was asked by President Jimmy Carter to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where she remained until she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme court in 1993. During her time as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, she was a powerful voice on gender equality, workers' rights, and civil rights.
Beyond being one of the significant female role models in American history as the first African American first lady in United States history, she also graduated Harvard Law School. She specialized in intellectual property law at Sidley & Austin where she met her future husband Barack Obama. Her persuasiveness and adept speaking skills played a prominent role in her husband’s campaign as he was elected the 44th president of the United States in 2008.
Throughout her tenure as First Lady, she launched the Let’s Move campaign, a program dedicated to ending obesity among the young generation. She initiated more nutritious food options in schools as well as greater access to healthful food in underprivileged communities. She also actively encouraged students to continue their education beyond high school by visiting schools across the nation.
“Judge Judy” Judith Sheindlin
Before you knew her as “Judge Judy” on daytime television, she was Judith Sheindlin, and she was the only woman in her graduating law school class in 1965. She passed the bar the same year and managed to run a private practice as well as raise two children.
In the early 1970’s “Judy” was a prosecuting attorney for New York City’s family court and later a judge in the Bronx family court. Her workload was substantial, and as such she quickly earned a reputation as a “no nonsense” “give it to me straight” approach to handling her large caseload.
Her candid and straight to the point delivery caught the eye of TV executives looking for a new incarnation of the popular show The People’s Court. Judge Sheindlin handled small claims cases on the tv show, and was an instant success. After 25 seasons on television, Judge Judy is now a household name in America. As one of the most trailblazing female lawyers in history, she would later go on to say that she didn’t judge her cases based on particular laws but based them on “good old common sense.”
As the daughter of a librarian and minister, she spent a large portion of her childhood watching court proceedings. Loretta’s early interest in court proceedings came from her grandfather who would tell her impassioned stories of how he helped people escape persecution under Jim Crow segregation laws. “I realized the power the law had over your life and how important it was that the people who wield that power look at each situation with a sense of fairness and evenhandedness,” Loretta said.
She graduated from Harvard Law School, and went on to be the first African-American woman in history to become an Attorney General. She served two tenures as attorney general under Bill Clinton’s presidency as well as Barack Obama’s. Between her two tenures she aided in prosecuting crimes commited during the Rwanda genocide.
She also played an important role in the prosecution against Brooklyn police offers who brutally beat and sexually assaulted Abner Louima, an immigrant from Haiti. With her help, the two officers were sentenced to 30 years in prison.
If there is one female lawyer who paved the way in American legal history, it’s Arabella Mansfield. In 1869, despite only males being permitted to take the Iowa state bar exam, she passed with flying colors. Following passing the bar, Iowa lifted its female restriction and she was officially the first female lawyer in U.S. history.
Despite passing the bar, however, she didn’t pursue a degree as a lawyer but as an educator and activist. Throughout her career she fought passionately for the women’s suffrage movement, although she passed away several years before suffrage was officially achieved.
Her accomplishments and important role in shaping the legal industry as we know it today makes her one of the most groundbreaking female lawyers in history.
Success as a female attorney: rising to the challenge
If there’s one main takeaway from this group of iconic female legal pioneers it’s that women aren’t just equal to their male counterparts, they can downright outshine them. It all comes down to perseverance, and the right tools, and it’s possible to rise to just about any challenge.
While women may no longer be required to fight for their right to practice law, they’re still the minority and gender biases are still a reality in any industry but particularly the legal one.
In the male dominated industry of law women have to work even harder to rise to the gender-specific challenges like wage gaps, harassment, and work life balance.
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