Amidst the gentle rolling plains of central Indiana, Clara Shortridge was born in 1849. Her family then moved to Iowa where Clara had the unusual opportunity to attend a coeducational school and receive a basic education. By the age of fifteen she fell in love with a local Civil War soldier, Jeremiah Foltz, and they eloped. Babies came quickly and they often moved in order for him to find work.
Then in 1876 her husband abandoned her.
Living near her parents, now in San Jose, California, Clara Foltz found herself a single mother with five children to support on her own. She took in sewing, she took in boarders, and she began to study the rudiments of law with her father’s help. She decided to become a lawyer because the pay would be steady, the job was respectable, and she would be in a position to help other women.
The only problem was that women in 1876 were not allowed to take the bar examination in California. That privilege was reserved for white males. The only other requirement to become a lawyer in California at that time was a six month residency.
In 1878 Clara tried to get The Woman Lawyer’s Bill introduced into the state legislature. It would give women the right to take the state bar exam; however, it had been relegated to a slush pile, where it would die. Clara went straight to the Governor of California and appealed to his sense of fairness, begging him to reconsider. Just before the midnight deadline, the governor retrieved the bill and signed it into law.
Clara sat for the exam and passed, becoming the first female in California to be admitted to the state bar.
Next, she applied to California’s only law school, Hastings School of Law, in order to solidify her understanding of judicial process. She was denied admission due to her gender.
So Clara, along with her friend Laura Gordon, sued the school on the issue of gender equality, argued their own case, and won.
Her next residence was San Francisco, where she began practicing as an attorney, and tried cases in court at a time when women were not allowed to even serve on a jury. Clara became intensely involved with the field of Women’s Rights. She sought to protect the property rights of women, and she actively campaigned for a woman’s right to vote.
Her trailblazing legal career would span a total of 56 years and include many milestones. It was Clara Foltz who introduced the idea of a public defender where even the poorest criminal is entitled to legal representation in court. At the time, her idea was looked upon as a radical notion but in 1965 the Supreme Court of the United States adopted the constitutional right to counsel for any criminal defendant.
She continued to fight for equal rights, for both men and women, and helped to establish the California Parole Board. Often highlighting the plight of justice for all, she went on the lecture circuit to heighten awareness of her views. After finishing an invigorating legal career, she ran for Governor of California, at the age of 81; ten years after women finally received the right to vote.
Asked how she had overcome adversity and became a beacon to other women who wanted to achieve their own dreams, her purported answer was, “I believed in myself.”
According to the Center for Research on Gender Equity, in 2012 women accounted for 33% of all lawyers in the United States, but less than 20% reach the equity partnership level. If Clara Foltz were alive today, she would be campaigning for those rates to be higher.
Strong women have the ability to enact change.
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