International Women’s Day on Monday gave me pause for thought. With so many legal firms across the UK looking to improve their gender balance and inclusion – all the way to board level – being a “woman in law” is still a career path that can have its trials and tribulations.
That being said, there are so many women from all over the world and in almost every different century, who have made a colossal impact on the profession. They have paved the way for women, no matter their background, to be able to practice law.
From trailblazers who wouldn’t take no for an answer to Vice Presidents and diversity champions, here are some of the most iconic, influential women in law.
Charlotte E. Ray (1850 – 1911)
Charlotte was a teacher from New York who went on to become the first black female lawyer in the United States. She received her law degree in 1892 and her admission to the District of Columbia bar made her not only the first woman to practice in the state, but the first black woman to practice in all of America. Sadly, by 1879, her legal firm had suffered a lack of business owing to racial prejudices and she returned to New York to resume teaching. But Ray was, and is, a beacon for young black women looking to enter the profession.
Madge Easton Anderson (1896 – 1982)
Madge was the first woman to graduate from the University of Glasgow with a law degree. She was also the first woman to be admitted to the legal profession in the whole of the United Kingdom, following the Sex Discrimation (Removal) Act of 1919 and a successful petition to the Court of Session. She went on to become a partner in the first UK law firm to be run solely by women. It’s safe to say she was a pioneer for her own generation, and for generations to come.
Bella Abzug (1920 – 1988)
Nicknamed “Battling Bella”, this American lawyer was one of the most vocal supporters of the 1970’s “new feminism” which swept America. Before she became so heavily associated with the women’s rights movement, she was a tenacious lawyer who would take on cases many others wouldn’t. She was a passionate social advocate, taking on the cases of young Black men and women, which would often see her – quite literally – run out of town. She is a perfect example of having courage in your convictions and being the change you want to see in the world.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933 – 2020)
The subject of countless films, documentaries and articles, RBG’s death echoed in the legal profession around the world. Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman and only the second woman to ever serve on the United States Supreme Court when she was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993. She spent the majority of her career prior to this arguing for gender equality and women’s rights and was one of only a few women to actually be teaching law during the 1960s. She has been vocal on everything from equal pay and abortion rights to the rights of Native Americans and international law.
Baroness Hale (1945 – Present)
Brenda Hale is the first woman to be President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. She spent most of early life lecturing in law, before joint topping her class to qualify as a solicitor. She has spent much of her career arguing for diversity within the legal profession (and specifically, judges) so that the British public can “have more confidence” in who is making the decision. A vocal and passionate supporter of racial and gender equality, she has given many lectures and interviews advocating for better representation.
Kamala Harris (1964 – Present)
Kalama Harris is the highest ranking female official in American history and the first African-American, Asian-American Vice President. She began her law career in Alameda Country District Attorney’s office, working her way up the career ladder until she became District Attorney of San Francisco from 2004 – 2011, where she worked tirelessly to reduce violent crime rates and oppose the death penalty. She moved into politics in 2017, when she was elected to the US Senate.
There are so many inspirational stories to reflect on here – the ideal way to celebrate both International Women’s Day and the many successes of women in our legal profession.
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