Friday, March 29, 2019
To celebrate Women’s History Month, I decided to write about the first women of color in the legal profession. I do not consider myself a naïve person, but I grossly underestimated the difficulty of this task. I thought I would quickly and easily find the names of the brave women who paved the path for women of color in this profession. Instead, I discovered that most of the information hard to find, contradictory, scattered, or lost to history. Apparently, female attorneys of color matter so little that few have taken the time to compile a list of pioneering women of color in the profession.
To be fair, some of the difficulty comes from the fact that communities of color come from many different places and have identified differently at different times. But even after resolving these issues, the fact that these names are not prominently displayed for all to see is inexcusable.
Recognizing these pioneers is not just a matter of setting the historical record straight. It also helps present-day litigators. According to all published reports, despite high levels of ambition, women of color struggle to get ahead in the profession. The problem is so dire that the ABA has created an entire initiative devoted to women of color. By understanding the obstacles that these women overcame – and continue to overcome – other women of color can draw inspiration to go on when the whiteness and maleness of the profession seems to much to bear. Also, the profession should highlight the stories of these women to change the perception of what legal excellence looks like. Women of color in the legal profession need to be acknowledged and celebrated year-round – not just during Women’s History Month.
Now that I’ve vented my frustration about the way women of color have been overlooked, I’d like to spend the rest of this post honoring the women of color who paved the way for those who followed. If there are any omissions or errors, please list them in the comments.
The First Lawyers
1872 – Charlotte E. Ray. In 1872, Charlotte E. Ray became the first African American woman to earn a law degree when she graduated from Howard Law. Later that year, she was admitted to practice in Washington, D.C.
1909 – Lyda Burton Conley. When Ms. Conley was admitted to the Kansas bar, she became the first Native American woman attorney in the nation. She worked tirelessly to protect Native American burial grounds and sacred spaces.
1929 – Rosalind Goodrich Bates. When Rosalind Goodrich Bates graduated from Southwestern University in 1929, she become one of – if not the very first – Latina to do so. Born in El Salvador, Ms. Bates worked in international law. She later became a judge and helped found the International Federation of Women Lawyers.
1938 – Elizabeth K. Ohi. Ms. Ohi, a graduate of the John Marshall Law School, became the nation’s first Japanese-American female lawyer in 1938. She worked for labor unions and other such causes. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government detained her. Undeterred, upon her release, she joined the U.S. Navy.
The First Judges
As if succeeding as a female attorney of color were not enough of an accomplishment, these women decided to become judges. Here are the first women of color to serve as jurists:
In State Courts -
1939 – Jane Bolin. In 1939, Jane Bolin was appointed to the New York Domestic Relations Court, making her the first African American woman to serve as judge.
1978 – Frances Muñoz – The child of immigrants, Judge Muñoz attended segregated schools and later graduated from Southwestern University Law School. In 1978, Governor Jerry Brown made her a member of the judiciary, making her the first Latina trial judge in the U.S.
1979 – Patricia Yim Cowett – In 1979, Governor Brown of California appointed Judge Cowett to the Municipal Court. The appointment made her the nation’s first Chinese-American female.
2001 – Rena Van Tine - In 2001, Rena Van Tine, a graduate of New York Law School, became the first Indian American woman to serve as judge when she took the bench in Cook County, Illinois.
In Federal Courts
1966 - Constance Baker Motley – A protégé of Charles Hamilton Houston, Judge Motley worked on desegregation cases prior to being appointed to the Southern District of New York by President Johnson.
1992 – Irma Gonzalez and Sonia Sotomayor. August 12, 1992 was a banner day for women of color on the federal bench. On that day, two Latinas, the Honorable Irma Gonzalez and the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor, received commissions for district courts in California and New York. Judge Gonzalez continues to work as a senior judge. Judge Sotomayor, of course, is now Justice Sotomayor.
1994 – Rosemary Barkett (Barakat). In 1994, Bill Clinton appointed Judge Barkett to the 11th Circuit. Born to Syrian parents who immigrated to Mexico, Barkett identified as both Latina and Middle Eastern. Her appointment made her the first Arab American of either gender to sit on the federal bench.
2010 – Dolly Gee – A graduate of UCLA Law, Judge Gee was first nominated by President Clinton but Republicans refused to support her. President Obama rectified the error when he re-nominated Judge Gee in 2009. Judge Gee is the first Chinese American to serve on the court.
2014 – Diane Humetewa - Just five years ago, the first Native American female federal jurist took her seat. In 2013, President Obama nominated Judge Humetewa to the U.S. District Court for Arizona. In 2014, she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
The lives of these extraordinary women provide so much inspiration. While each of these women is phenomenal, it’s also sadly true that many of these firsts are quite recent. As we reflect on the lives and careers of these women, I hope their struggles remind us of how far we have come and how we have yet to go in terms of how women of color are treated in the legal profession and in the nation at large