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Posted on: March 1, 2021

Women’s History Month: Celebrating Women in Law

Allister with Female Staff

Women's History Month encourages the study, awareness, and celebration of the vital role women have held and continue to hold in American history. In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter helped bring national attention to this by declaring the week of March 8th as National Women's History Week, stating that "too often women are unsung and sometimes their contributions unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength, and love of the women who built America were as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well." It wasn't until 1987, after a petition was brought forth by the National Women's History Project, Congress designated the entire month of March as "Women's History Month." Last fall, our very own county contributed to this history by electing the first woman to serve as County Attorney. An award-winning prosecutor, Allister Adel began her career at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. She continued to hold various leadership roles with the State of Arizona and the Maricopa County Bar Association before coming back to head this organization.

Today, County Attorney Adel leads a workforce where 60% of its employees are women, including half of senior management and two-thirds of all supervisors. This hasn't always been the case. The world of law for a long time was a male-dominated field. It wasn't until after women received the right to vote in 1920 that all states began to admit women to the bar. However, the culture of law schools, firms, and criminal justice organizations took longer to change. Few women were admitted to law school, and those that law firms hired were tasked with work as legal secretaries or law clerks. Many women spoke out and challenged gender inequality and bias issues so that future generations could have the opportunities they do today.


Women Who Paved the Way

Arabella Mansfield-America’s First Female Attorney

After graduating from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1866, Arabella Mansfield began studying law at her brother's law office to prepare for the bar exam. At the time, the bar exam was limited to men, and no women before had tried to take it. Even so, in 1869 Mansfield took the exam and passed. That same day she was administered the oath of office in open court by District Court Judge Francis Springer and became the first woman in the country to be certified as licensed attorney. Even though the Iowa statute restricted the practice of law to men, Judge Springer held, in an unwritten opinion, that "affirmative declaration that male persons may be admitted is not an implied denial to the right of females." Shortly after, Iowa updated its statute and became the first state to allow women to practice law, with the Iowa Supreme Court deciding that women should not be denied the right to practice solely based on their gender.

Charlotte Ray-First African American Female Attorney

In 1869, while a professor at Howard University, Ray applied to the Howard School of Law under the name C.E Ray to hide her identity as the law school was reluctant to admit women. In 1872, Ray became the first African American Woman to receive a law degree in the U.S and one of the first women to be admitted to the bar in Washington D.C. For a few years, she practiced law at her own firm, but racial and gender discrimination made it difficult to get clients, and eventually, she was forced to close her office.

Sandra Day O’Connor-First Woman U.S Supreme Court Justice

At the age of sixteen, Justice O'Connor was admitted to Stanford University, where she earned a degree in economics. In 1950, she was again admitted to Stanford, where she completed law school in just two years. Even with all of her qualifications and drive, Justice O'Connor had difficulty finding employment as a woman attorney and eventually took a non-paid position with the San Mateo County Attorney's Office. It didn't take long to prove herself, and she quickly earned a promotion and became a deputy county attorney. From then on, her career took flight, landing a variety of positions in the U.S and abroad until she settled in Arizona and was elected to the State Senate. In 1981, Justice O'Connor was appointed to the U.S Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan, where the U.S Senate confirmed her with a vote of 99-0. Justice O'Connor served on the Supreme Court until her retirement in 2006.

To learn more about Women’s History Month visit, WomensHistory.org

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