Clara Foltz: California’s Woman Legal Pioneer

You are here

Clara Foltz: California’s Woman Legal Pioneer

by Natalie Marine-Street on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 - 5:00am

An impressive collection of Stanford’s “first women” gathered at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research recently to learn about the “wreaths of triumph” and “strains of struggle” experienced by an earlier female pioneer — lawyer and women’s rights advocate, Clara Shortridge Foltz.  As California’s first female lawyer, Foltz was a celebrity in the late-nineteenth century, but time and the loss of Foltz’s personal papers obscured her contributions to the woman’s movement and the legal profession.  Until, that is, Stanford Judge John Crown Professor of Law Emerita Barbara Babcock determined to uncover them.  Babcock, who gained “first woman” status herself when she became the first female on the regular faculty of the Stanford Law School in 1972, spent years reconstructing Foltz’s life from tidbits in local papers, court documents, and census records.  Her recently published biography Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz restores this important figure to her rightful place in history.

Source: The California Supreme Court Historical Society

An Unlikely Legal Pioneer

The story Babcock painstakingly pieced together is that of a woman whose family responsibilities made her an unlikely legal pioneer.  Born in 1849 in Indiana, Foltz had little formal education. She eloped with a Union veteran at age fifteen and bore five children in quick succession while laboring as a farmer’s wife.  She pursued her wandering husband to the West Coast where she made ends meet as a milliner, seamstress, and boardinghouse keeper.  He abandoned her in the late 1870s, around the time she began to read law under the tutelage of her father, who had relocated to San Jose.  Foltz became California’s first woman lawyer when she passed the bar in 1878 and convinced legislators to change the state law so that she could practice.  Foltz then sought additional training at the University of California’s Hastings Law School, but its Board of Directors rebuffed her – in part because the male students complained about the rustling of her skirts.  She successfully sued the directors in court in 1879, and the law school began accepting female students.   Under enormous financial strain, however, it was impossible for Foltz to attend.

Foltz’s Most Important Legacy

Foltz’s personal quest to become a lawyer and her success in opening the profession to women are impressive by themselves,but her adventures did not stop there. Indeed, Babcock described Foltz as “the Forrest Gump of the nineteenth century” because she seemed to show up everywhere.  She endured the rigors of daily law practice, agitated for woman’s rights and suffrage, and was a popular lecturer and political stump speaker.  Along the way, Foltz refined the theory that would become her most important legacy — the need for a state-funded public defender to balance the public prosecutor and afford a more equal measure of justice to poor defendants.  She wrote law review articles on the subject, drafted a model statute, and campaigned for its passage in several states in 1897.  Foltz’s dream reached fruition with the establishment of the first office of public defender in Los Angeles in 1913.  Other jurisdictions soon followed suit as the idea that counsel for the defense was necessary and should be compensated become increasingly commonplace.

Foltz Faced Incredible Resistance

Babcock emphasized the incredible resistance that Foltz and her lofty ambitions encountered.  A traditional gender system and recalcitrant legal profession compelled Foltz to perform publicly as a competent lawyer, a model mother, and a feminine woman.  During a critical legislative vote on the Women’s Lawyer Bill, for instance, Foltz brought her two young sons along to prove that she sought access to the profession to support them, and not because she intended to abandon maternal duties.   Press attention to Foltz often focused on her rarity as a woman lawyer and her stylish apparel choices rather than her innovative legal ideas. Moreover, it was very difficult to make a living out of the cases with which people were willing to trust women lawyers.  Foltz handled baggage loss suits and divorce actions and defended desperate people accused of crimes.  She never found a law partner, moved around the country in search of more profitable clients, and was unable to gain entry into the burgeoning realm of corporate law.  Her speaking engagements were necessary supplements to her usually meager legal income.

Throughout her many successes and trials, Clara Shortridge Foltz drew sustenance from a growing network of female professionals, reformers, and suffragists.  Many of these women gathered in 1893 at the Congress of Representative Women held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair.  Foltz met with leading suffragists there and spoke on issues, including temperance and the living conditions of immigrants.  She returned to San Francisco revitalized to continue agitating for woman’s rights.

Personal Parallels

Babcock drew a parallel between Foltz’s experience at the 1893 Congress and her own association with the Clayman Institute.  She recalled her “lonely, very lonely early days” at Stanford and how grateful she was for the presence of other pioneer women faculty like Deborah Rhode, Myra Stober, and Estelle Freedman. They supported each other and benefited from the intellectual exchange enabled by what was then called the Center for Research on Women.  Those Stanford ‘first women’ would have been there with Foltz at the 1893 Congress, Babcock maintained.  One imagines that Foltz would have gravitated to the Clayman, too.

Responses to Clara Foltz: California’s Woman Legal Pioneer

Sigrid Curry's picture
11 September, 2011 Sigrid Curry (not verified)

she was a very courageous woman

Janice Pearson's picture
12 September, 2011 Janice Pearson (not verified)

Great article! More people should read this inspiring and well written story.