” I am a woman and I am a lawyer-and what of it? I came into the practice of my profession under the laws of this State, regularly and honestly, . . . and I have come to stay. I am neither to be bullied out nor worn out. ” ~~ Clara Shortridge Foltz
Unlike other original Suffragists, Clara Shortridge Foltz was able to exercise her vote after the ratification of the Ninteenth Amendment which gave women the ability to vote. Clara was the “first woman” in many ways in California:
- 1878: First woman admitted to the Bar in California. 20th District Court at San Jose.
- 1880: First woman to hold position Clerk for State Assembly Judiciary Committee.
- 1881: Elected President of California’s Woman Suffrage Association.
- 1887: First woman to hold statewide office in California (Board of State State Normal School).
- 1891: First woman Notary Public in California. Lobbied for parole and penal reform.
- 1909: First woman appointed to the California State Board of Charities and Corrections.
- 1910: First female Deputy District Attorney of Los Angeles. [resource link]
This remarkable woman shaped a path for women when women weren’t in a position to do so. In 1849 when Clara Shortridge Folz was born, the United States had only its 12th US President, the California Constitution was just ratified which extended property rights to women, and the first female physician was awarded her MD (Elizabeth Blackwell). At a time before the Civil War ended and slaves were freed, a 15 year old teacher eloped with a Union soldier and thus began a life as most mid-west women did at the time. Clara Shortridge Foltz gave birth to five children and traveled to California with her husband, settling in San Jose.
During the Civil War, the Suffrage movement halted because women put their energy into the war effort. In 1878, there was a devastating economic depression. This was the year Clara Foltz became a single mother after divorce. She was a seamstress but the income was not sufficient to care for her five children, and in a time when women could not hold property in their own name let alone vote or hold prominent positions, a single mom didn’t have a great outlook. However, this did not deter Ms. Clara Shortridge Foltz. She studied law at her father’s law office in San Jose and took up a career as a public speaker arguing for women’s suffrage. She discovered that California law only allowed “any white male citizen” to become a lawyer, so she drew up an amendment striking out those limiting qualifications and pushed it through the legislature in 1878. Just months after the enactment of the Senate Bill 66, “the Woman Lawyer’s Bill”, she became the first woman admitted to the California bar.
The triumph of this first for the single mother gave rise to another obstacle. When she was denied entry to law school because she was female, she was again not deterred. She sued the law school and won the right to enter it. She became the first Notary Public in California and developed a passion as a humane and sympathetic counselor which brought many indigent clients into her office. She discovered an inequity with the defense of the indigent clients and the highly paid and skilled prosecutors convicting them. Because she believed that unless there was comparable representation, the constitutional due process could not be had. Foltz wrote and personally promoted the “Foltz Defender Bill,” which was adopted by 31 states. She became known as the founder of the Public Defender.
Clara Shortridge Folz was an active and outspoken advocate for the Suffrage movement. Among her achievements she advocated for constitutional clauses guaranteeing women access to education and employment. In advocating for women’s rights, she kept traditional values where it concerned men:
“Men cannot succeed without the aid of women, nor can women be more truly working for the advancement of their own sex than when seeking to uplift, dignify, and purify men. Women compel men to think. “
A woman, single mother, trail blazer, advocate, and one of the original suffragists, Clara Shortridge Foltz never let the obstacles that plagued her life as a woman deter her from what she wanted. She provides inspiration to all women to never let anyone tell you, that you cannot do it. The perfect woman to be honored on International Womans Day, 2019.