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Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz

Publication Date: 
February 01, 2011
California Legal History
Mary Jane Mossman

Professor Barbara Babcock's book, Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz, is the feature piece of the following story by California Legal History. Mary Jane Mossman writes:

In trying to sort out the reasons for professional women’s successes or failures, it is far too facile to say that there were prejudices against women that they had to overcome. The ways in which the prejudice manifested itself were extremely complex and insidious. . . . As determined, aspiring professionals, women were not easily deterred. They found a variety of ways to respond to the discrimination they faced. . . .

Although their study of late nineteenth and early twentieth century women professionals in the United States did not include a review of the first women who gained admission to the legal profession, Glazer and Slater’s assessment of the experiences of women professionals (above) is equally appropriate to understanding the lives of “first” women lawyers, such as Clara Shortridge Foltz (1849–1934). Certainly, prejudices about Foltz were manifested in a variety of different ways. But, like other women who chose to become lawyers in the late nineteenth century, Foltz was not easily deterred — indeed, she was both astute and creative in finding ways to respond, and often to overcome, the discrimination she faced.

As Barbara Babcock’s new biography reveals, Foltz had great ambitions: to be “an inspiring movement leader, a successful lawyer and legal reformer, a glamorous and socially prominent woman, an influential public thinker, and a good mother”; perhaps not surprisingly in this context, she suffered not a few setbacks in a life that was often “frantic and scattered.” Yet, as Babcock’s careful scholarship demonstrates, the story of Foltz’s life and contributions as one of America’s first women lawyers offers important insights about the history of gender and professionalism in law. Moreover, Babcock’s biography is particularly important for two reasons. First, it provides both a detailed “story” about Foltz and a sustained assessment of her accomplishments, rounding out many aspects of Babcock’s earlier writing about Foltz. Perhaps more significantly, the biography is also augmented by an online supplement with essays and bibliographic notes that extends the documentation in the printed book — part of Babcock’s unique Women’s Legal History Web site at Stanford Law School, which has become a primary source for scholars interested in the history of women in law, particularly in the United States. This review focuses on the published biography, an authoritative and sensitive biographical interpretation of Foltz’s life. Indeed, in answer to Babcock’s professed goal for her biography, it seems clear that Foltz would enthusiastically “approve” this fine effort.