Barbara Underwood, First Woman State Attorney General of New York

        As the country considers the connection between men’s sexual behavior and the judiciary, I thought it might be appropriate to trumpet last May’s appointment of Barbara D. Underwood as the First Woman Attorney General of the State of New York. The position became available when the previous Attorney General resigned after the exposure of his abusive treatment of women. This contrasts with Underwood, who has defended students and staff in federally-funded colleges and universities from sex discrimination. She also has argued in court to protect buffer zones around health clinics that provide abortion services.

        A magna cum laude graduate of Radcliffe College, when its women were still segregated from Harvard College, she attended law school at Georgetown University. She then clerked for David L. Bazelon, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Justice Thurgood Marshall, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

        Yale Law School offered her a professorship in the 1970’s and she taught there for ten years. She also taught at Brooklyn Law School and at New York University School of Law. She left academia for the practical application of law, serving with three County District Attorneys in New York.

        In 1997 U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno appointed her as Acting Solicitor General of the United States. This post is especially prestigious as the Solicitor General is the person who represents the United States government before the Supreme Court. Underwood was the First Woman in that position. In all there have been 56 appointments to the position of Solicitor General since the office was established in 1870. Its appointees include many luminaries: William Taft, appointed by Benjamin Harrison, became president of the United States; Thurgood Marshall, appointed by Lyndon Johnson (and the First African-American in the position) became a Justice of the Supreme Court; and Elena Kagan, appointed by Barak Obama, also became a Supreme Court Justice. (Kagan did not have an “acting” title as did Underwood, so she could also claim the title First Woman in the Solicitor General position.)

        Underwood is 73 years old and promised not to run in the next election. She was approved by the state legislature almost unanimously. Her credentials are impeccable and she was praised on all sides, but I can’t help but wonder, in these contentious times, if her promise not to run was a large factor in her bipartisan approval.

        When she leaves the position, there is a possibility she could be replaced by a woman. Three women have announced their candidacies; all are Democrats. They will face three men, all Republican. Whoever wins the position, it is almost inevitable that more women’s issues will intersect with the judiciary.

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Clara Shortridge Foltz – First Woman Deputy District Attorney

Even though she was born in the middle of the nineteenth century, Clara Shortridge Foltz’s life may not have been dissimilar from some women today. She was a mother and career woman; she ignored barriers; and she had the courage to achieve in areas where there were no models for her to follow.

Born in Indiana, she moved with her family to Iowa during the Civil War. When she was fifteen, she eloped with a man who had difficulty supporting his family. He took her to Portland, then to San Jose. She kept body, soul, and family together by writing letters to The New Northwest and articles for the San Jose Mercury. Her husband finally deserted her and she became the single mother of five children.

In order to support her family, she gave public lectures about women’s suffrage, one of the few avenues for women to earn an income in that time and place. She also “studied” law in the office of a local judge, but when she went to take the bar exam she discovered that the California constitution specified one qualification for admission to the bar that she could not meet. She was not a “white male.” Not one to be deterred, she promptly used her legal training and drafted an amendment to change that language to “person.” She persuaded the legislature to pass the amendment, and became the First Woman admitted to the bar in all of the Western United States.

Wishing to perfect her skill, she applied to Hastings College of the Law, along with her friend Laura de Force Gordon, but they were denied admission. Although they did not have law degrees, they had studied enough law to bring a legal case against the school. They wrote the brief and argued the case all the way to the California Supreme Court. And they won.

In 1893 Foltz spoke to the Board of Lady Managers at the Chicago World’s Fair and proposed a new position for the legal system, that of public defender. This novel idea of providing legal assistance to the indigent is now practiced throughout the country. She also advocated for the separation of juvenile offenders from adults. That same year she organized the Portia Law Club with other women lawyers in San Francisco. Seven years later, in Los Angeles, she became the First Woman deputy district attorney.

In addition to being the First Woman admitted to the bar, and the First Woman deputy district attorney, she also held the following firsts in California:

–the First Woman clerk for the State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee,

–the First Woman appointed to the State Board of Charities and Corrections,

–the First Woman licensed Notary Public,

–the First Woman appointed as director of a major bank, the United Bank and Trust Company of San Francisco, and

–the First Woman to run for Governor of California. (She was 81 years old at the time.)

While not busy racking up firsts, she also founded and published the San Diego Daily Bee, and the New American Woman Magazine. She wrote a monthly column for the magazine until her death at the age of 85.

The women of Hastings College of the Law organized in 1991, and compelled the college to honor Foltz with a Doctor of Laws degree, fifty-seven years after her death. In 2002, the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building was renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, a visible tribute to a legal dynamo.

Aretha Franklin, First Woman in Fact and in our Hearts

Many have paid tribute to Aretha Franklin but few have outlined all her achievements as a First Woman:

     –First Woman inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame (and second in the UK)

     –First Woman to have 100 titles on Billboard’s top R&B/hip-hop songs chart

     –First Woman to win the newly created Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. She won this award in 1968, the year it was created. The first eight years the award was given, she won every year. She later received the award three more times and was nominated for the award a total of twenty-three times. She won seven other Grammys as well.

Aretha was an innate musician. As a child she taught herself to play the piano by ear. She was ten years old when she began to sing in her father’s church. She toured on the gospel circuit and made her first secular album in 1961. Her last album was produced just last year. She has so many Grammys, degrees, and medals her mantle must have sagged from the weight—if one mantle could even hold them all.

When musicians we loved as younger people and continued to follow as adults take their final bows, we reminisce about all the joy they gave us through the songs they sang. We do reflect on their lives, their struggles, and their successes, but more often it is the music that connects us to them, and to the world. A favorite tune becomes an “ear worm,” and rather than be annoyed at its intrusion, we rejoice in all the blessings it bestowed upon us.

We remember the special places where we heard those songs played, during our first kiss, while we pondered ending a relationship, when our love was overwhelming, when our hearts were broken. We relive those times, we rejoice in them, and we regret the passing of the voice of those memories.

For me, that connection feels even stronger with Aretha Franklin. She sang words that defined who we were, that gave us power as women, that wrenched our souls. She spoke forwomen and she made us feel like “A Natural Woman.” It is as if she, through her music, did exactly what that song said, “When my soul was in the lost and found, You came along to claim it.” Aretha Franklin built us up and comforted us in our struggles. It is with enormous “Respect,” that “I Say a Little Prayer,” for her, and for me, that I might be the woman of her songs.

Jeanette Rankin, First Woman in Congress

Montana has only one representative in the U.S. House of Representatives and yet it has the distinction of having elected the First Woman representative. Montana gave women the right to vote in 1914. In 1917, three years before the rest of the nation granted suffrage to women, Jeannette Rankin ran for Congress and won. She is still the only woman to have ever served in Congress (House or Senate) from the state of Montana.

Rankin was a native of Montana, born near Missoula in 1880. Her reputation as a suffragist, aided by her brother’s pocketbook, paved her path to Congress. When she arrived in Congress, her male colleagues rose to cheer her. When she proposed a committee on Woman Suffrage, her colleagues agreed and appointed her to the committee. It was Rankin who opened the debate on women’s suffrage when it was considered by Congress in 1919, the year the Nineteenth Amendment would finally pass in Congress, after having been submitted every year for 41 years.

The vote to enter World War I occurred during Rankin’s term, and she voted against it, one of 50 no votes out of 423 cast. She was widely criticized nationally but supported by her Montana constituents. However, there was a mining disaster in Butte during her term and the union went on strike. Rankin supported the union members and Montana’s mining companies assured that Rankin would only serve one term.

Rankin spent two decades working for organizations that promoted peace and then in 1940 decided to run for the House once again and was elected. During her term the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Jeannette Rankin was the only member of Congress who did not approve the resolution to enter World War II. This time her colleagues did not cheer her; they booed and hissed.

Not only was Rankin opposed to war, but she was opposed to the manner in which some had the authority to decide that others could be sent to war. “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” She also argued that, if the country was going to go to war, the older men should be sent to fight so that the young men could “propagate the race.”

She was not re-elected.

After three more decades of working for peace, women, and civil rights, Rankin considered running for Congress again so that she could vote her opposition to the Vietnam War. By this time, however, she was in her 90’s and illness prevented any further stand against war. One could say she was a fierce warrior for peace.

“Stagecoach Mary” Fields – First African-American Woman to Deliver U.S. Mail

One of my favorite Northwest First Women is Stagecoach Mary, the First African-American Woman mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. Mary was a slave born in Hickam County, Tennessee, where she lived for the first thirty years of her life. Her birth is not recorded, but she was probably born about 1832. When her mother pondered what to name her, she looked around the plantation and decided on Mary Fields.

It was not unusual in those times for a slave child to become friendly with a white plantation child and for those two to later grow apart. This path was a little different for Mary. She was friends with the plantation owner’s daughter, Dolly Dunn. They were separated when Dolly went off to boarding school and then Dolly joined a convent. During the Civil War Mary was left behind on the plantation where she had to learn survival skills. She learned to plant her own food, to raise poultry and, most important, to use plants for medicine. Then Mary and Dolly’s paths, atypically, reunited.

Dolly, who was now Sister Amadeus, invited Mary to come to Ohio to work in the convent. Both were about 30 years old at the time. When Sister Amadeus went to the missions of Montana, Mary remained behind. Then Sister Amadeus became ill and Mary went to Cascade, Montana, where the nuns had opened a school for Native American girls. Mary was already around 53 years old. She treated Sister Amadeus, who recovered. The nuns then paid Mary by engaging her to manage their gardens and chickens. She did manual labor, repaired buildings, did laundry, hauled freight. Eventually she became the forewoman at the convent.

Mary, however, was definitely not religious. She liked to drink and smoke in the bars with the rowdies in town. She was 6’2” and could deck a man with one blow. When the men at the convent realized that Mary was making more money than they were, they began to bad-mouth her, probably just relating actual events. The nuns had either not known of her outside activities, or had turned a blind eye, but the bishop did not. Mary was fired.

She then ran a restaurant, but she had this propensity to give away food to whoever couldn’t pay. The restaurant, not surprisingly, was a failure. She was already about 60 when she heard Wells Fargo was looking for someone to deliver the mail. Each applicant had to hitch horses to a wagon and she did so in record time, beating the other contenders. Thus, she became the First African-American to deliver the mail and only the second woman.

Mary had a reputation for always being on time with the mail. If her wagon and mule were caught in a snowdrift, she went forward on snowshoes. She was known for her dedication and it was during this time that she gained the sobriquet “Stagecoach Mary.” This is probably a reflection of her reliability, but some say she actually drove a stagecoach.

She was also known for her kindness to others, but Mary Fields still liked to drink and smoke. When the city of Cascade barred women from the saloons (other than prostitutes, of course), the mayor made a special exception for Mary—for the balance of her life.