Clara Shortridge Foltz never went to law school, yet she passed the California bar exam in September 1878, after studying law in the office of a San Jose judge. At the time, only white males were allowed to become members of the bar. To facilitate her ambition of taking the exam, Clara authored the Woman Lawyer’s Bill in April 1878—legislation entitling women to practice law—and then personally persuaded Governor William Irwin to sign it.
She was the first woman admitted to the California bar, and the first female lawyer on the Pacific Coast. Clara Foltz was also the first female clerk for the State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee; the first woman appointed to the State Board of Corrections; the first female licensed Notary Public; and the first woman named director of a major bank. She was a leader in the woman’s voting rights movement.
She accomplished most of this as a single parent raising five children by herself. Born July 16, 1849 in Indiana as Clara Shortridge, at age 15 she left her family home in Iowa to elope with farmer and Civil War veteran Jeremiah Foltz. The couple started a family, but Jeremiah had some difficulty holding jobs. The Foltzes moved several times, ending up in San Jose, California, in 1872. Some four years later, Clara’s husband abandoned her and their five children. In an era when public speaking paid well, she supported her family by giving lectures in California, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa.
Clara Foltz’s progressive ideas led to innovative changes in the American legal system. In 1893—when the idea was considered quite radical—she publicly put forth her concept of a public defender, an officer of the court who would provide taxpayer-funded assistance and representation to indigent criminal defendants.
In 1910, Clara was appointed to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, becoming the first female district attorney in the United States. She died of heart failure at age 85, in her Los Angeles home, on September 2, 1934. The Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles was renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in 2002.
March is National Women’s History Month