Sandra Day O'Connor, First Woman Supreme Court Justice
During the past few centuries, women in the United States have blazed a trail towards equality through their diverse experiences with the law. They’ve suffered under the law, challenged it, changed, it and practiced it as attorneys and judges.
The timeline below captures some of the highlights, setbacks, and strides made by women in and through the law from 1683 to the present day, including women gaining the right to choose a legal profession. It also covers critical legal issues affecting uniquely women, including of the passage of enslavement from mother to child, marriage and property rights, and voting rights.
Related: Learn more about New England Law’s history as the first law school exclusively for women.
The Seventeenth Century
Margaret Brent, the first woman to appear before a court of the Common Law to claim land or pursue her own interest, arrives in the Colony of Maryland. This major landowner has a role in over 100 court cases in Maryland and Virginia.
Enslaved in Virginia, Elizabeth Key sued for her freedom, arguing that her status should be determined by her free, white father, who had been a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, instead of her enslaved mother. Her attorney, William Greensted, won the case and married her. But in 1662, Virginia legislated that a child’s status as free or enslaved is determined by the mother's condition. This condemned mixed-race offspring into servitude, as most of them had black mothers.
The Eighteenth Century
The colonies adopt the English system decreeing that women cannot own property in their own name or keep their own earnings.
Women lose the right to vote in the original thirteen states.
The Nineteenth Century
Mississippi disassembles “coverture,” or common laws granting husbands management, control, and ownership of their wives’ real estate and personal property, as a married woman was not considered to have a separate legal existence from her husband.
Property rights for women emerged in piecemeal fashion over the next several decades, requiring women to continuously fight for more detailed and expansive legislation. The legal status of women was a major issue in the struggle for woman suffrage.
The word “feminist” appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Arabella Mansfield is the first woman lawyer admitted to the legal profession. She never practiced, instead teaching at Indiana Asbury University, now DePauw University.
Ada Kepley, the first American woman graduate from a law school, earns a formal law degree from Union College of Law in Chicago, now Northwestern University.
Charlotte Ray becomes the first black female lawyer and is admitted to the District of Columbia Bar. She opened a solo practice in Washington, DC, specializing in real estate law, but according to Kate Kane Rossi, another early woman attorney, "although a lawyer of decided ability, on account of prejudice [Ray] was not able to obtain sufficient legal business and had to give up…active practice." Ray returned to her first career, teaching, in New York in 1879.
Related: Courage Can Be Contagious: 6 Black Women Legal Trailblazers You Need to Know
Susan B. Anthony is arrested, convicted, and fined for voting in the presidential election. (She died before women gained the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.)
Belva Lockwood becomes the first woman admitted to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court Bar after it rejected her earlier application on the grounds of “custom.”
Lockwood, who held the requisite lower court license from the District of Columbia, fought for Congressional legislation early in 1879 establishing that women who practice law must have access to even the highest court. She later ran for president.
The Equity Club is founded at the University of Michigan by Lettie Burlingame for women law students and law alumnae. It is the first professional organization for women lawyers.
Lutie A. Lytle, an African-American attorney, becomes the first woman law professor in the nation when she joins the faculty of the Central Tennessee College of Law.
The Twentieth Century
Portia Law School, the first and only law school founded exclusively for women, was established in Boston at a time when most colleges accepting women catered to those from privileged backgrounds. The school initially targeted working-class and lower-middle-class women who wanted to attend evening classes (largely due to having other obligations during the day, like childcare responsibilities and jobs).
At the time, women were excluded from law schools for many reasons, ranging from a fear they would lower educational standards to the possibility such study would render them sexless and sterile, according to Joyce Antler, author of The Educated Woman and Professionalization: The Struggle for New Feminine Identity.
The school started offering day classes in 1922 and became coeducational in 1938. In 1969, the school changed its name to New England School of Law and in 2008 became New England Law | Boston.
Jane Matilda Bolin becomes the first black female judge in the U.S. She served on New York’s Family Court bench for four decades, advocating for children and families.
Sandra Day O'Connor becomes the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, nominated by President Ronald Reagan
Twelve years later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, nominated by President Bill Clinton, becomes the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court. As of March 2020, only four U.S. Supreme Court Justices have been women.
Related: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Honors Program
A woman attorney moves into the White House for the first time: Hillary Rodham Clinton, First Lady to President Bill Clinton.
Michelle Obama becomes the second First Lady who worked as a lawyer to come to the White House when Barack Obama becomes the nation’s forty-fourth president.
Related: 5 Pioneering Lawyers You Should Know for Women's History Month
Former lawyer Hillary Rodman Clinton secures the Democratic presidential nomination, becoming the first U.S. woman to lead the ticket of a major party. She loses to Republican Donald Trump.
Virginia becomes the thirty-eighth state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which would provide that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” This opens the door to amending the U.S. Constitution—though whether or not that will come to pass remains to be seen…
Robin Farmer is a professional writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Learn more about New England Law’s history as the first law school exclusively for women.