Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz

By Ginsburg, Ruth Bader | Stanford Law Review, February 2013 | Go to article overview
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Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz

Ginsburg, Ruth Bader, Stanford Law Review


By Barbara Babcock. ([dagger]) Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2011. xv + 392 pp. $45.00.

Called "Portia of the Pacific," Clara Shortridge Foltz, who lived from 1849 until 1934, was the first woman admitted to the practice of law in California, and achieved many other "firsts" in her long professional career. Famous as she was in her day, her name was little known when Barbara Babcock set out, in the early 1980s, to bring Clara Foltz, and the times in which she lived, vividly to life. Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz (1) is the culmination of Babcock's quarter-century endeavor to restore Foltz to her rightful place in the history of women's struggles to achieve full citizenship stature. (2) It is a work of remarkable range and depth, a fitting tribute to a woman of unbreakable spirit who, time and again, refused to give way to despair or to take "no" for an answer to her pleadings.

In 1878, at the start of the new year, fewer than fifty women practiced law in the United States. Women could not vote in California or in the country generally, and California law allowed only "white male citizen[s]" to apply for admission to the bar. (3) In the course of that year, Clara Shortridge Foltz, a twenty-nine-year-old mother of five children, the eldest age twelve, relentlessly lobbied for legislation opening the practice of law to "any citizen or person" in California. (4) That mission accomplished, Foltz became, well before the year's end, the first woman admitted to the California bar. Woman Lawyer relates in enlightening detail the trials and travels of Clara Foltz as she fought to gain recognition in a profession fiercely resistant to relinquishing its masculine cast.

Babcock tells the story of Foltz's life in two parts. The first four chapters are chronological. They proceed from Foltz's early days and her successful quest to become a lawyer, through her efforts to earn a living in law practice while simultaneously promoting women's rights and criminal process reform, to her attempts to establish herself in New York, Colorado, and finally back in California, where she was eventually named the state's first woman deputy district attorney. The book's last three chapters are thematic, concentrating first on Foltz as a public thinker, then on her work to achieve political equality for women, and finally, on her invention of the office of Public Defender. Necessarily, this bifurcated arrangement involves some twice-told incidents. But the presentation helps the reader to appreciate in full measure Foltz's large contributions to the causes and movements she strived to advance.

Babcock faced a formidable challenge in constructing an account of Foltz's life: most of Foltz's papers--her case files, scrapbooks, personal letters, and appointment books--did not survive, nor did pictures and souvenirs she kept as treasured possessions. (5) The loss or destruction of these uniquely valuable materials is a fate shared by other pioneering women of Foltz's time and their modem biographers. At the turn of the century, few libraries collected women's papers, and family members apparently discarded correspondence, diaries, and documents that might have been illuminating. (6) Limited largely to public records, contemporaneous media coverage, and Foltz's published commentary, Babcock assembles an impressive amount of information about Foltz's work and days, the places and societies in which she moved, her allies, and her adversaries. Yet despite Babcock's long and careful research, more than occasionally, she can only speculate about Foltz's reasons for acting as she did and her role in movements and events described in the book.

Laudably, Babcock persevered in getting to know Clara Foltz intimately. With the understanding of a good friend, Babcock tells the story of a brilliant, courageous, and extravagantly ambitious pioneer in law and women's rights.

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