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Clara Shortridge Foltz

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Clara Shortridge Foltz has been called California's First Woman. The first woman on the Pacific Coast to pass the bar, she did so after successfully LOBBYING the legislature to change a law that denied women the right to become lawyers. She was the first woman to serve as clerk of the judiciary committee of the state assembly, to be selected as a trustee of the State Normal School, to serve on the California State Board of Charities and Corrections, to serve as a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, and to run for governor. She was the first woman to argue a motion in the New York City courts. And, in 1893, she was the first person to propose a model public defender bill—the blueprint for the system that remains in place today. Her efforts resulted in the passage of the bill in more than thirty states.

Foltz was born July 16, 1849, in New Lisbon, Henry County, Indiana, the second of five children, and the only girl, to Elias Willets Shortridge and Telitha Cumi Harwood Shortridge, both of Indiana. Her father was at times a druggist, a lawyer, and a preacher in the Campbellite Church.

The Shortridges moved to Dalton Township, Wayne County, Indiana, the next year. By the time Clara was eleven years old, the family was living in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. There, she received her only formal education, at Howe's Academy, a progressive school whose mission and purposes were coeducation, WOMEN'S RIGHTS, and the ABOLITION of SLAVERY. She earned honors in Latin, philosophy, history, and rhetoric. At age fourteen, she accepted a teaching post near Keithsburg, Illinois, which she held for only one term because, at age fifteen, on December 30, 1864, she eloped with a Union soldier, Jeremiah Richard Foltz.

The Foltzes lived on a farm in Iowa, where they had the first three of their five children. In 1871, Foltz's husband moved to Oregon; in 1872, Foltz and their four children (the youngest being nine weeks old) followed. She found him working as a clerk for miniscule pay. To support her family, she went to work as a dressmaker and took in boarders.

In 1875, Foltz and her family moved to San Jose, California. Although her marriage ended there in 1877, her public life began. Foltz became involved in the suffrage movement, attending, and then giving, lectures. Foltz also began her legal career in San Jose. She attempted to study with the preeminent member of the legal community Francis Spencer, but he refused her request. Foltz then turned to C. C. Stephens, who was a friend, an occasional legal partner, and a fellow silver prospector of her father's. Stephens accepted her as a student at his firm, Black and Stephens.


In 1877, California law allowed only white males over twenty-one years of age and of good moral character to become lawyers. Foltz wrote a proposed amendment to section 275 of the Code of Civil Procedure, changing "white male" to "person." Foltz and her sister suffragist Laura deForce Gordon lobbied throughout the twenty-second session of the California Legislature for the Woman Lawyer's Bill. It easily passed the senate but met strong opposition in the assembly. Foltz's ally, the senate sponsor of the bill, Grove L. Johnson, switched his aye vote to nay in order to move for reconsideration of the defeated bill. After a heated debate at the very end of the legislative session, the Woman Lawyer's Bill passed the assembly. The bill nearly died until Foltz managed a last-minute audience with Governor William Irwin. In the waning hours of the session, on the last possible day, March 29, 1878, the governor signed the bill.

Foltz and Gordon divided their responsibilities the summer of 1878. Foltz studied and was the first woman to take advantage of their recent legislative success, taking the bar examination. Gordon, although she was not a delegate, attended the first California constitutional convention as a member of the press, and successfully lobbied for the inclusion of two clauses that she and Foltz had a hand in drafting. The first clause prohibited restrictions to any business, vocation, or profession based on sex; the second prohibited SEX DISCRIMINATION in college faculty hiring. Foltz passed the bar examination and became California's first female lawyer on September 5, 1878.

In January 1879, Foltz and Gordon registered for classes at Hastings, California's first law school. However, after only a few days of classes, Foltz received a letter from the Hastings Law School Board, informing her that the directors had resolved not to admit women. Foltz and Gordon filed suit to compel the college, as a state institution, to admit women. The district court judge, who reportedly did not believe in women lawyers, nevertheless found these women lawyers to be correct in the law, and ordered Hastings to admit them. Hastings appealed, and the case went to the California Supreme Court (Foltz v. Hoge, 54 Cal. 28 [1879]). Although Foltz and Gordon were victorious again, the time for Foltz to attend law school had passed. She went to Sacramento to serve as clerk, or counsel, to the judiciary committee of the state assembly. Foltz nevertheless considered the Hastings victory to be her finest moment.

Foltz had a long and successful career as an attorney, first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles. She practiced probate, criminal, family, and corporate law. Some of her very first cases, in 1878, heard in justice court, involved reclaiming the property of young women put in vulnerable circumstances by desertion, illness, or an ex-employer.

Throughout her career, in addition to conducting a thriving practice, she worked for suffrage and women's rights. She actively encouraged the participation of women in the legal profession. In 1893, she organized the Portia Law Club in San Francisco. She taught women the law at her offices in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, where she relocated in 1906. In 1918, she helped found the Women Lawyers' Club in Los Angeles. She was responsible for California laws allowing qualified women to act as administrators, executors, and notaries public.

Foltz was a primary force behind improving the criminal defense system. In 1893, she represented the California bar at the National Congress of Jurisprudence and Law Reform, held in conjunction with the Chicago World's Fair. It was there that she first introduced the Foltz Public Defender Bill. This proposal was subsequently adopted, owing in large part to her lobbying, in over thirty states.

The Foltz Public Defender Bill proposed a defender system in which salaried lawyers would devote all or a substantial part of their time to the specialized practice of representing indigent defendants, as opposed to the existing system, in which the court appointed lawyers on an ad hoc basis from the bar at large. The model bill proposed that public defenders meet certain qualifications, receive a salary, have clearly defined job responsibilities, and serve for a term of

office. A public defender would be a county officer who would defend, without expense to them, all persons who were not financially able to employ counsel and who were charged with the commission of any CONTEMPT, misdemeanor, felony, or other offense.

Nearly two decades passed before the first public defender office was actually established in Los Angeles County in 1914, where Foltz was then living. In fact, she had already served as the first woman deputy district attorney, in 1911. It was 1921 before California passed a statewide public defender bill.

Foltz was also an active writer and publisher. She founded the weekly newspaper The San Diego Bee. She also published a feminist weekly, The Mecca, during a brief stay in Colorado, and a magazine, The New American Woman. She also contributed articles to other papers and magazines throughout her life.

Foltz died in Los Angeles on September 4,1934. The pallbearers for her funeral included the governor and several prominent federal and state judges.

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