Can You Name Some of the Famous Women in the History of American Law?

Fennemore Proudly Celebrates The Women Trailblazers Who Impact The Legal Profession

Can You Name Some of the Famous Women in the History of American Law?

As we close out March and our celebration of International Women's Month, Fennemore now highlights some of the remarkable women in the history of American law who have made significant changes in the world. On behalf of our female attorneys who positively impact our client’s businesses and the communities where we live and work, we salute all of the women working in the law who daily create change and champion causes for the good for all of Americans.

Women in Practice in the United States

Let’s start with the first of the firsts. Arabella Mansfield became the first woman attorney in 1869 when she passed the bar exam in Henry County and was admitted to practice law in the State of Iowa. Ms. Mansfield did not attend law school and spent her career as a college professor. A short time later, Myra Bradwell sat for and passed the 1869 Chicago bar exam. Ms. Bradwell was the wife of a judge who started The Chicago Legal News a year earlier. The weekly newspaper reported on the progress of women entering the legal profession. As a successful legal newspaper publisher, it allowed her to educate her readership on women’s rights.

In 1870, Ada Kepley in Illinois became the first woman to earn a law degree upon her graduation from law school and to practice in a court in the United States in 1881. At the time she graduated law school, women were not permitted to become members of the Illinois state bar. Despite an 1872 law that allowed her to join the bar, she did not join until 1881.

Charlotte E. Ray graduated from Howard Law School in 1872 and was the first female African-American lawyer in the U.S., as well as the first practicing female lawyer in Washington, D.C. Ms. Ray became the first African-American woman lawyer in 1872 after she applied for the District of Columbia bar under the name “C. E. Ray” and was accepted (perhaps to conceal the fact that she was a woman). She was one of the first women to graduate from a university law school instead of reading the law or serving an apprenticeship.

The country’s first Native American woman lawyer was Lyda Burton Conley, a member of the Wyandot tribe. She was admitted to the Missouri State Bar in 1902. Sixteen years later, Judge Mary Belle Grossman and Mary Florence Lathrop became the first two female lawyers admitted to the American Bar Association.

The number of women attorneys has grown since the early 1900s. In 1980, just 8% of all licensed lawyers were women, according to the ABA. By 2000, that number had more than tripled to 27%. A look at the 2020 the Nevada Bar Annual Report shows that its membership was comprised of more than a third of female lawyers (34.5%).

With this growth has come more women in leadership positions in national bar associations. For example, Arnette Hubbard became the first female president of the (American) National Bar Association in 1981, and in 1995, Roberta Cooper Ramo became the first female president of the ABA. In 2008, Ms. Ramo became the first female president of the American Law Institute.

Women have served in the past few years more frequently as state bar presidents in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York. And by 2007, 29 women had severed as bar presidents in New York state local and specialty bars associations. In fact, Maryland’s bar association has had five women serve in the top spot.

Also of note is the fact that in 2007,  New York State Bar Association, the New Jersey State Bar Association, and the Maryland State Bar Association all made history when women presidents of those organizations were succeeded by women— a first-time event for all three bar associations.

Slowly by surely, women have started to make their mark in a professional once exclusively the domain of men.

Women Jurists

The first woman to be confirmed to the United States Supreme Court was, of course, Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981. Justice O’Connor, whose future husband, John O’Connor,  joined Fennemore Craig in 1957, paved the way for future Supreme Court women jurists. These include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away in 2020 after 37 years on the high court; and current female Justices, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, as well as Justice Amy Coney Barrett who took her seat on the Court last year.

Now there are 463 women on the Circuit Courts of Appeals or in District Court judgeships. However, there’s a way’s to go, as women still make up only 27% of all federal judges. That’s a lot of opportunity for women in the law.

Women Attorneys in Government

There have been many women who’ve made history as attorneys in government. In 1921, 32-year-old Mabel Walker Willebrandt was appointed the first female assistant attorney general of the U.S. by President Harding. After seven years in her position, she went into private practice, where she helped pioneer aviation law, even earning her own pilot license and becoming a friend of Amelia Earhart.

In 2020, Kamala Harris became the first female vice president of the United States. She’s also the first Black person and Asian American to hold that position. Vice President Harris has made history throughout her career. In 2016, Harris became the first South Asian American to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Ms. Harris had other firsts in the law while serving in state government. She was elected California Attorney General in 2010, making her both the first African American and the first woman to hold the position.

A University of New Mexico Law school grad, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland made history when she became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican.

Avril Haines has a law degree from Georgetown and is the first woman to serve as the Director of National Intelligence in the Biden administration.

Katherine Tai is an attorney now serving as the U.S. Trade Representative. Ms. Tai is the first Asian-American and first woman of color to serve in this position.

After earning a JD from Cleveland State University Cleveland–Marshall College of Law, Marcia Fudge became the first African-American woman to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development since Patricia Roberts Harris left the office in 1979. And the first woman to serve as Michigan's governor, Jennifer Granholm, is now Secretary of Energy. The native of Vancouver, British Columbia earlier served as attorney general of Michigan.

These women attorneys have been given the opportunity to lead and to show the country that they have the skills and experience to take on major responsibilities in our federal government.


Many of these famous and first women in the law have credited their outstanding mentors for the help and tutelage they received in becoming top attorneys. They also pay it forward by mentoring new women.

“Mentoring is of critical importance to professional development. Mentoring goes on everywhere and helps junior lawyers get to the next level,” Louise A. LaMothe, former chair of the ABA Section of Litigation, told the ABA. She’s now a practicing arbitrator and mediator in Santa Barbara, California.

Ms. LaMothe went on to say, “Mentors remain important at every stage of professional life as the lawyers’ abilities grow and our needs and our focus change.”

Because women and minorities were historically excluded from mentoring opportunities, now many law firms have created mentoring programs. This support helps young, female lawyers succeed in a very male-dominated culture.

Women have played critical roles in the law. From ground-breakers and those shattering ceilings to practicing attorneys who have taken the time to help newcomers, women continue to gain ground and make vital contributions in the practice of law and in our society.

Justice Ginsberg was once asked, “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?”

Her answer: “When there are nine.”

She noted her reply surprised people, but she explained, “There'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that.”

We’ll close this celebration of women in the law with our first: former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor, who served on the Arizona Supreme Court from 1998 to 2009 was Fennemore’s first female attorney!

In a recent interview with 12-News Arizona, McGregor joked about having John O’Connor as her assigned mentor: “I've always thought it was because they thought he could deal with a bossy woman as he did with Sandra."

Here’s to all the bossy women, passionately engaged, ambitious – and leading the way.

Get MORE. Insights

Stay ahead in the legal world – subscribe now to receive the latest insights and news from Fennemore Law Directly in your inbox!