Today’s progress toward a more equitable world results from an array of historically marginalized voices speaking up against adversity. Women in law have been uniquely positioned throughout modern history to create lasting change by stepping into a male-dominated field and positively shaping the larger world through policy, litigation, and advocacy. Although there’s still work to be done, incredible progress has been made: Women now make up 38% of all lawyers in the U.S., breaking down barriers and paving the way for future generations. In this post, we will explore some of the groundbreaking achievements of well-known female attorneys, both past and present, how they have shaped the industry we know today, and why their impact is essential for future generations.
Famous Female Lawyers
Historically, women have faced significant obstacles and discrimination when pursuing a law degree or being admitted to the bar, with many being denied entry or facing institutional barriers designed to exclude them.
Despite progress made since the early 1900s, women still faced an uphill battle being accepted into leadership positions or taking on important roles within the industry. Gender bias, wage discrimination, and lack of diversity and representation remained significant obstacles. These notable female attorneys helped pave the way for future generations by breaking down barriers, advocating for greater equality, and challenging stereotypes.
Charlotte E. Ray: First Female Attorney
Charlotte E. Ray is considered the first female attorney in U.S. history. She attended Howard University, taking classes in law, even though she knew that women were not admitted to the bar. She graduated in 1872 as Howard’s first Black woman legal graduate and was the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia bar. While she struggled to retain clients due to gender and race, Ray was the first woman to practice and argue in the District of Columbia Supreme Court in Gadley v. Gadley in 1875.
Impact: Her persistence and eventual admittance to the bar were used as a precedent for female lawyers in other states to gain admission to their bars.
Belva Lockwood: First Female Attorney to Argue Before the United States Supreme Court
Belva Lockwood was one of the first female attorneys and the first female to run for United States President. Lockwood attended the National University Law School in Washington, D.C., starting classes at age 40. Finishing her degree in 1873, the university refused to grant her a diploma based on her gender. In 1876, the United States Supreme Court denied her application to the bar, stating, “None but men are permitted to practice before us as attorneys and counselors.”
Lockwood petitioned male attorneys and members of Congress to create legislation allowing qualified women to be admitted to the bar, and the “Lockwood Bill” was signed into law in 1879. In 1880, she became the first woman to argue before the United States Supreme Court in Kaiser v. Stickney (102 U.S. 176). Lockwood declared herself a third-party candidate for president in 1884 and 1888, despite being unable to vote, running her campaign as part of the Equal Rights Party.
Impact: Lockwood’s determination to treat female attorneys equally led to the “Lockwood Bill” passing, securing a woman’s right to be admitted to the bar.
Constance Baker Motley: First Black Female Attorney to Argue Before the United States Supreme Court
Constance Baker Motley was the first Black woman to argue in front of the United States Supreme Court. She graduated from Columbia Law School in 1946 and went to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) legal staff.
During her time with the NAACP, Motley argued 10 cases (winning 9 of them) to the Supreme Court and countless other racial discrimination cases, often risking her safety to travel across the country. Motley worked closely with future United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall during the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. After leaving the NAACP, Motley became the first Black woman in the New York State Senate, and in 1965, she became the first woman elected as the Manhattan Borough president.
In 1966, President Johnson appointed Motley to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, where she fiercely protected constitutional rights.
Impact: Motley was a critical force in the civil rights movement, arguing cases that have shaped today’s legal landscape. She helped break down barriers and create new opportunities for women and minorities in the legal field.
Loretta Lynch: First Black United States Attorney General
Loretta Lynch was the first Black woman to be confirmed as the United States Attorney General. She graduated from Harvard Law School in 1984 and began her career in private practice. She was appointed and served twice as the U.S.
Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, first in 1999 and again in 2010. In 2014, Lynch was nominated for and confirmed as United States Attorney General, becoming the first Black woman and second woman overall (after Janet Reno) to hold the position. During her tenure, she oversaw many high-profile cases and was a vocal advocate for pay equity and female representation in leadership. Lynch has since returned to private practice, chairing the Civil Rights and Racial Equity Audits convention at Paul, Weiss.
Impact: Lynch is a tireless advocate for equality both as a private attorney and while serving as the Attorney General. Her commitment to gender equality has inspired countless women to pursue a career in law or fight for equality in their industry.
Michelle Obama, born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson on January 19, 1964, was First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017. She is also one of the most famous female lawyers, a university administrator, and a writer.
As First Lady, she became a role model for women worldwide, advocating for poverty awareness and education. She earned her Juris Doctor degree after studying at the Harvard Law School in 1988.
Elizabeth Warren, born Elizabeth Ann Herring on June 22, 1949, is a politician who has been the senior United States Senator of Massachusetts since 2013. She is also one of the most famous female lawyers who studied law at Rutgers University and graduated in 1976.
She specializes in commercial law and bankruptcy, and she has been teaching law at a few different schools, including Harvard Law School.
Amal Clooney, born Amal Alamuddin on February 3, 1978, is a Lebanese-British barrister specializing in international law and human rights. She is the wife of famous actor George Clooney.
Known as one of the most famous female lawyers, she studied at the New York University School of Law, where she earned her Master of Laws degree and was admitted to the bar in 2002. She is now a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers.
Judith Sheindlin was born Judith Susan Blum on October 12, 1942. She is an American prosecution lawyer and a former family court judge. She is also a television personality, Judge Judy, for her television courtroom series.
She studied at the New York Law School, earning her Juris Doctor degree in 1965. She passed the New York State Bar examination the same year and was appointed a criminal court judge in 1982.
Hillary Clinton, born Hillary Diane Rodham on October 26, 1947, was the First Lady of the United States from 1993 to 2001. She is a famous lawyer, a politician, a diplomat, a public speaker, and a writer.
She earned her Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School in 1973. As the Democratic Party’s nominee, she lost the 2016 United States presidential election to Donald Trump.
Nancy Ann Grace was born on October 23, 1959. She is a former prosecutor, as well as a legal commentator and a television journalist. She has been hosting her own current affairs program between 2005 and 2016 and has been involved in different controversies due to her outspokenness.
She received her Juris Doctor degree from the Walter F. George School of Law and her Master of Laws degree from New York University.
Looking to the Future: A More Equitable World
It’s important to recognize these enormous impacts are what made these changemakers famous. Still, there are countless other women in law not represented in this list who have made significant and small contributions to moving the needle forward for women’s rights. And there’s still a long way to go. Examples like these women are helpful reminders despite adversity, and all efforts add up when making a more equitable future for all.