CRF Blog

Who Was Clara Shortridge Foltz?

by Damon Huss

316px-Clara_Shortridge_Foltz

(Wikimedia Commons.)

Today marks the birthday of Clara Shortridge Foltz, whose name may be familiar to anyone who has worked or had jury duty in the Los Angeles criminal court building named after her. But who was she?

Probably best known as the first woman lawyer on the West Coast, Foltz was that and much more. Born in Indiana in 1849, Foltz later moved with her husband and children to San Jose, California in 1874. After she divorced her husband in 1876, she had to raise her five children alone and also decided she wanted to be a lawyer.

The only problem was that the California State Bar was not accepting women into the legal practice. She nonetheless sent a letter of  interest to a local lawyer in order to apprentice to him, or to “read law” with him. She was literally told, “A woman’s place is in the home.”

Undaunted, Foltz went on to draft what became known as the Woman Lawyer’s Bill, amending the California Code of Civil Procedure to replace the phrase “any white male citizen” for eligibility for the state bar with the phrase “any citizen or person.”

Still 27-years-old in February 1876, she persuaded a state senator to present the bill in the legislature. It passed 22-11, and later passed in the assembly despite staunch opposition. Through Foltz’s tenacity and persuasion, the governor signed it.

Foltz, a lifelong suffragist, would go on to become a lawyer, sue the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco to finally admit women, win that case, go to law school (even after being admitted to the bar), and become the first female deputy district attorney in California in 1910.

She is also widely credited with the idea of creating a public defender’s office, in order to fulfill the constitutional guarantee under the  Sixth Amendment of a legal right to counsel for criminal defendants. In 1893, she presented a model bill at a Chicago law-reform conference for states to use in creating a public defender’s office. Today, all states and the federal court system have established public defender offices to represent indigent criminal defendants.

For more information:

Flaherty, Kristina Horton. “A hundred years later, a trailblazer gets her due.” California Bar Journal  (June 2011). (An interview with Barbara Babcock, author of Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz (Stanford University Press 2011).) Click here.

“Lesson 2: Discrimination and Civil Rights in California” in Diversity in California: Past and Present. Constitutional Rights Foundation (2013). Click here.

Schwartz, Mortimer D., Susan L. Brandt, and Patience Milrod. “Clara Shortridge Foltz: Pioneer in the Law.” Hastings Law Journal. 27 (1976). Click here.

Updated July 17, 2013.