Five lawyers who overcame sexism to change history

With around 38% of attorneys today being women, it’s easy to remember how much women have had to fight for their right to practice law.

Although gender inequality in the legal profession is still prevalent today, women in the United States have pushed back on sexism and accomplished remarkable advancements for female lawyers over the last 150 years.

We’ve compiled a list of five lawyers who overcame sexism to change the legal landscape for women today.

Arabella Mansfield (1847 – 1911)

“There was a quiet determination and dedication in every event of the life of Belle A. Mansfield.” ― Dr. Louis A. Haselmayer, Women’s Lawyer Journal, Spring 1969

Arabella Mansfield was born on May 23, 1847, in Benton Township, Iowa. Mansfield attended school at Iowa Wesleyan College and graduated as valedictorian of her class in 1865.

After Mansfield’s brother established his own legal practice, she developed an interest in the law and decided to take the Iowa bar exam. Despite the exam only being open to men, Mansfield pushed back and took the exam anyway.

After achieving high scores on the exam and challenging the Iowa courts, Iowa became the first state to allow women to practice law and admitted Mansfield to the bar. Arabella Mansfield is considered the first female attorney in the United States.

Mansfield would later become a teacher and an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement. Working with Susan B. Anthony, she would Chair the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1870.

Unfortunately, Mansfield passed away on August 1, 1911, before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. She would later be inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in 1980.

Pauli Murray (1910 – 1985)

“What is often called exceptional ability is nothing more than persistent endeavor.” ― Pauli Murray

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland on November 20, 1910. Murray would eventually be raised by her aunts after her mother passed away and her father was committed to a psychiatric institute, all of this occurring before Murray reached four years old. When Murray was 13 years old, her father was beaten to death by a white guard at the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland.

Murray would eventually apply to Columbia University, but was turned down as Columbia did not admit women at the time.

In 1933, she graduated from Hunter College with a degree in English. She then applied to law school at the University of North Carolina but was rejected, this time due to her race. In an attempt to be represented in court in response to the discrimination, it was suspected that Murray was denied representation because of her sexuality.

Murray’s sexuality would lead to her being taken into police custody and admitted to a psychiatric institution. She left the institution in 1940 with her girlfriend, Adelene McBean, where they joined forces in various civil rights acts over the following year.

After a passion developed for a career in civil rights law, Murray began attending Howard University Law School as the only woman in her class. On the first day of classes, one of her professors vocalized that he did not understand why women went to law school.

She graduated from Howard University first in her class and passed the California State Bar exam in 1945.

Murray was hired as the first black deputy attorney general in California and eventually published a book titled, States’ Laws on Race and Color, which was later described as the “bible for the civil rights movement.”

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Murray to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women where she continued to argue against sex discrimination and racial discrimination. She also served as Vice President of Benedict College, and later, a professor at Brandeis University where she taught law, African-American studies, and women’s studies.

Pauli Murray died on July 1, 1985 due to pancreatic cancer.

Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink (1927 – 2002)

“We have to build things that we want to see accomplished, in life and in our country, based on our own personal experiences … to make sure that others … do not have to suffer the same discrimination.” ― Patsy Mink

Patsy Mink was born on December 6, 1927, in Maui to second-generation Japanese Americans. Mink graduated Maui High School as valedictorian and attended the University of Hawaii to study medicine. She eventually transferred to the University of Nebraska where dorms were separated by race.

Mink and a few of her classmates successfully worked to end the segregation policies at the University of Nebraska.

Mink later applied to twenty medical schools; none of which would accept women. Disappointed in these policies, Mink decided to take matters into her own hands and started applying to law schools to change these policies through the judicial system.

She attended the University of Chicago Law School and graduated in 1951.

After Mink struggled to find work as a female Asian-American attorney, she opened her own solo law firm and became the first Japanese woman to practice law in the Hawaiin Territory.

She would later become the first Asian-American woman to be elected to the United States Congress. Mink was also the first woman to ever deliver a state of the union response.

In 1976, Mink was appointed as the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs by President Jimmy Carter.

Mink passed away on August 30, 2002, due to chickenpox complications. Her death was just one week before a general election ballot where she was posthumously re-elected to Congress.

Sandra Day O’Connor (1930 – Present)

“The power I exert on the court depends on the power of the power of my arguments, not my gender.” ― Sandra Day O’Connor

Sandra Day O’Connor was born on March 26, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. She was born into farm-life where her family home did not have running water or electricity for a lot of her childhood. O’Connor enrolled at Stanford University when she was just 16 years old and graduated magna cum laude in 1950. In 1952, she earned her law degree from Stanford Law school.

Even though O’Connor graduated from law school in the top 10% of her class, she struggled to find employment because of her gender.

She eventually accepted a position as deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California, but only after agreeing to work without pay. O’Connor eventually moved on to serve as Assistant Attorney General of Arizona and was later appointed to Arizona Senate.

In 1973, she became the first woman to serve as a Majority Leader. In 1981, President Ronald Raegan appointed O’Connor to the Supreme Court of the United States. She was the first woman to be appointed to the SCOTUS.

O’Connor retired from the SCOTUS in 2006 and is currently living in an assisted-living facility.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933 – 2020)

“My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.” ― Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born on March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York. After Ginsburg’s mother was not permitted to go to college, she felt strongly about Ginsburg continuing her education. Ginsburg graduated from Cornell University in 1954 as the highest-ranking female in her class.

After having a child in 1955, Ginsburg decided to enroll in law school and attended Harvard University where there were only nine women in her class. While attending Harvard, she was invited to a dinner with her fellow female classmates and the Dean of Harvard Law where he asked the women, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”

She eventually transferred to Columbia Law School and was the first woman to be on two major Law Reviews.

After graduating first in her class at Columbia, Ginsburg struggled to find employment. She was rejected for a clerkship position with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter because she was a woman. She was eventually offered a position as a Law Clerk with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, only after her Columbia professor threatened to withhold future Columbia applicants if they did not give her a chance.

In 1963, Ginsburg became a professor at Rutgers University where she was paid less than her male colleagues because her husband had a well-paying job. She would later co-found the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1972.

President Jimmy Carter nominated Ginsburg for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. Thirteen years later, she was nominated as an Associate Justice for the Supreme Court of the United States by President Bill Clinton. Ginsburg was the second female justice on the SCOTUS and the first Jewish female justice.

Ginsburg passed away on September 18, 2020, at age 87 from pancreatic cancer complications.

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