Clara Shortridge Foltz, 1849-1934

  • Clara-Shortridge-Foltz-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & Feminism and LawWoman Tags: Lawyer, SF Bay Area Women, and Suffragist

  • HerStory

    The first female lawyer on the west coast, a public defender pioneer, an editor, and a suffrage leader.

    Clara Shortridge was born in Milton, Indiana, but was raised in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, attending a co-educational school. At 14, she accepted a teaching job, but in the following year, she eloped with Jeremiah D. Foltz – a Civil War veteran and a farmer who was ten years older than her. The couple moved from one place to another until they settled in San Jose, California. She raised their children and wrote articles for several local newspapers. When she was 27 years old, her husband left her with their five children. Already involved in the suffrage movement, she supported herself by giving public lectures on the subject, and simultaneity began to study law independently. When she wanted to take the bar examination, her admission declined because of her gender. Her response was to write the Woman Lawyer Bill, in which she changed “white male” into “person.” The Bill passed, and within a few months, she became the first woman to be admitted to the California bar and the first female lawyer on the west coast.
    Foltz wished to deepen her education, so she tried to enroll into Hastings College of the Law, but once again was denied for being a woman. So, together with Laura de Force Gordon, she argued before the state Supreme Court that if women could serve as lawyers, they should be allowed to attend law school. They also wrote an amendment to the California state constitution to change the law accordingly. By the time she won the case, she had no money to pay for her education, and she had to give up her dream to attend law school and return to serve as an attorney. As such, she had a successful career, practicing family, criminal and corporate law, first in San Francisco, then in Los Angeles and NYC.
    In 1893, during the Chicago World Fair, Foltz presented the pioneering idea of providing legal assistance to criminal defendants with low means, as well as segregating juvenile offenders from adult prisoners. Although it took 20 years, her revolutionary initiative came to practice first in California and then throughout the US.
    As a suffragist, Foltz always pushed for progressive legislation for women’s rights and encouraged women to participate in the legal field. In 1911, she led a campaign to secure the vote for women in state elections in California, and afterward, she became the first woman to serve as LA’s deputy district attorney. It is only one of her “firsts list,” that include- first female clerk for the State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, the first female licensed Notary Public, the first woman appointed to the State Board of Corrections, the first woman director of a major bank, the first woman member of the State Board of Charities and Corrections, and at 81, she became the first woman to run for Governor of California. She passed away at 85 of heart failure.

    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She grew up with four brothers.
    • Her father was a lawyer, and she studied the profession at his law office.
    • She was the second woman to practice before the state Supreme Court.
    • The pallbearers for her funeral included the governor and several prominent federal and state judges.
    • She founded and edited various newspapers and magazines, including the daily San Diego Bee and the New American Woman Magazine.
    • The Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles was renamed in her honor in 2002.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * A posthumous degree of Doctor of Laws from Hastings College of the Lawin (1991)

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

    No Records Found

    Sorry, no records were found. Please adjust your search criteria and try again.

    Google Map Not Loaded

    Sorry, unable to load Google Maps API.



    Jill Klein tells us about the amazing Clara Shortridge Foltz, first female attorney in California and creator of the American Public Defender program. Clara’s mind-blowing career begins with her struggles as a single mother of five determined to become a lawyer, moves through her successful efforts to change laws for women’s rights and concludes with her historic run for California Governor at the sprightly age of 81. She now has the largest Criminal Courthouse in our country named after her. Enjoy Jill’s take on one of the most inspiring founding mothers of our legal system.

    Our storytellers share these astonishing women with us conversationally and unscripted; we fact-check afterwards and note any major discrepancies for accuracy.

    Director: Julie Hébert
    DP: Kim Culotta
    Producer/Sound: Courtney Graham
    Co-Producer/Interviewee: Jill Klein
    PA: Sarah Michelle Witt
    Editors: Farrel Levy, Franzis Muller