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.

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.

LaToya Cantrell, First Woman Mayor of New Orleans

New Orleans, one of my two favorite cities in the United States, is celebrating its 300th birthday. Three hundred years of vibrant history, but also three hundred years without a woman mayor—until last month.

LaToya Cantrell became the first female mayor of New Orleans when she was sworn in on May 7. There was no question that the next mayor would be a woman, as her opponent in the final election was also a woman. She beat Desiree Charbonnet with 60% of the vote.

One drawback for Cantrell was the fact that she was not born in the city of New Orleans, as was every mayor for almost all of the last six decades. She did move there when she was eighteen, to attend Xavier University of Louisiana. After earning a BA in sociology, she studied executive management training at the Kennedy School of Government.

Her skills came to the fore after Hurricane Katrina when the Broadmoor district of New Orleans was flooded by the levee break. The city decided that the Broadmoor section of the city, and a number of others would be turned into green spaces. As president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, Cantrell and her compatriots mobilized as they revitalized the area for business and housing. Later Cantrell was elected to the city council, which was the springboard for her election as mayor.

Her inauguration was typical New Orleans. It began, teetering on that thin line between Church and State, with a Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. It ended with the mayor and her daughter exiting with umbrellas lined with feathers and huge white plumes, a typical New Orleans “second line.”

The inauguration itself was rich with women. The emcee for the day was Donna Brazile, former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, and New Orleans native. Music was provided by New Orlean’s only female brass band, The Original Pinettes, and Irma Thomas, known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

Mayor Cantrell proclaimed “Almost 300 years, my friends—and New Orleans, we’re still making history.” In this year when so many women are running for office, let’s hope she is on the front end of a long curve upwards.

Forward Momentum in the Senate

There were two major developments for First Woman in the U.S. Senate this year. One received extensive press coverage; the other did not.

Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth, Senator from Illinois, holds many firsts:

–First Woman double amputee of the Iraq War

–First disabled Woman elected to Congress

–First Asian-American Woman to represent Illinois.

–And now, the First Woman in the U.S. Senate to give birth while in office.

Considering how many women give birth, and that this country was founded 242 years ago, this seems almost inconceivable, but Senator Duckworth was the first. While she was pregnant the Senator raised the issue of family leave with the Senate. She advocated for benefits for families with young children or other family needs. She also helped overturn the prohibition of children on the Senate floor. After her baby was born, she brought her infant with her to the Senate floor, and made the news. A woman, with a baby, in public, doing her job.

Cindy Hyde-Smith

While Tammy Duckworth has received significant press, Cindy Hyde-Smith has not. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi retired in April, for health reasons. At that time the Republican Governor of Mississippi, Dewey Phillip Bryan, appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s term. She has indicated that she will run for the seat this November, hoping to utilize her background in agriculture and commerce to win support.

Cindy Hyde-Smith is not only the First Woman Senator from the State of Mississippi, she is, in fact, the First Woman to represent Mississippi in Congress. Perhaps, the long dry spell is not surprising, given that Mississippi did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote until 1984. But in Mississippi’s defense, there are still 20 states that have never sent a woman to the Senate. Do the math: 20 out of 50 states (or 40%) have never elected a woman Senator.

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Only 52 women have served in the Senate in the span of U.S. history; and only 23 are serving at this time. Once again, do the math: 23 women out of 100 (or 23%) represent more than 50% of the population. They have said that, given past progress, it will take another 100 years for women to achieve parity in Congress. Perhaps Senators Duckworth and Hyde-Smith are barrier-breakers who can speed up the trajectory for women’s success.