March is Women’s History Month, dedicated to the many achievements and contributions of women throughout American history, including women in the legal profession. Among the women to have pioneered access to justice in law is Clara Shortridge Foltz, a once-celebrated but now largely forgotten public servant. Foltz was the first woman on the Pacific Coast to pass the bar after first lobbying the California legislature to change a legal code that allowed only white males to become lawyers.
Foltz had a successful corporate practice and also represented many indigent defendants in criminal trials where she witnessed rampant prosecutorial misconduct and incompetent defense representation. Her experiences sparked an idea for a public defender’s office to balance the office of the prosecution, and, in 1983, she proposed a model public defender bill which was subsequently adopted in California and 30 other states. The Foltz Public Defender Bill served as a blueprint for the system that now exists nationwide.
Foltz also dedicated much of her life to women’s rights and was a leader in the women’s movement. She devoted her time to making the study of law easier for women, forming the Portia Law Club which provided pro bono legal training for women and prepared women for the bar examination.
Foltz gave many public speeches on the importance of voting rights and equal opportunity, even appearing at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to speak about legal reform. This inspirational woman was a pioneer for women’s rights in the field of law and helped make legal services for indigent communities more affordable and accessible. Her life of public service deserves a moment to be remembered this March.
Who is your favorite female pioneer for access to justice? Share their stories below!
Hat tip to PBI Intern Maria Vlasie for her assistance with this post.