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December Book of the Month: Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz

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Woman Lawyer

Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz
By Barbara Babcock
Reviewed by Andrea Woods, Reference Librarian

This engaging biography examines the life of Clara Foltz, who in 1878 was the first woman to be admitted to the California Bar. After she was abandoned by her husband and left with five young children to care for, she quickly surmised that the traditional “women’s work” of sewing, taking in boarders, and teaching would not provide sufficient income for her family. So she set out to be a lawyer. But first, she needed to remove the obstacle posed by the California Code of Civil Procedure—it stated that only a “white male citizen” could apply for the bar. Ms. Foltz and her allies worked tirelessly to see the enactment of the Woman Lawyer’s Act in 1878, which was among the first American statutes to allow women to practice law, and likely the first that resulted from the legislative process, as opposed to a court order.

The legacy of Ms. Foltz doesn’t end there. In 1879, she successfully argued in the California Supreme Court for the right to continue her education at the new Hastings College of the Law. She was a passionate and persuasive orator for the women’s suffrage movement, and while suffrage did not pass at the California Constitutional Convention of 1879, the women’s lobby managed to secure the addition of a clause guaranteeing equal employment opportunity for women—the first of its kind in any American constitution. And she pioneered the concept of the public defender’s office to ensure procedural fairness—a concept that is now commonplace, but was revolutionary at the time.

Woman Lawyer is a fascinating exploration of not only Clara Foltz’s life and legal thinking, but also of the roiling social and political climate that marked the turn of the century. A story of noble ideals and the hard work it takes to achieve them, this book is a must read!

The Law Library thanks Shannon K. Mauer of Duane Mauer LLP for generously donating this title. To learn how you can donate, please see our Donation Guide.

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