Los Angeles Almanac Logo
Home | All Almanac Topics | Crime & Justice

Clara Shortridge Foltz

Clara Shortridge Foltz, Circa 1900

Clara Shortridge Foltz, circa 1900. Online Archive of California, photo by I.W. Taber, courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Clara Shortridge Foltz was the first woman attorney on the Pacific Coast and the third in the United States. She was also a successful advocate for the establishment of public defenders. Born Clara Shortridge in Lafayette, Indiana, on July 16, 1849, she grew up in Iowa. From early on, she demonstrated a remarkable mind, even teaching briefly in Illinois, just before turning age 15. In 1864, at age 15, the talented teenager decided to elope with Jeremiah Foltz, a farmer and Civil War veteran, 10 years her senior. They went on to have five children, but Jeremiah’s ability to provide for his family was unstable. They moved to Oregon and, in 1874, ended up in San Jose, California. Two years later, Jeremiah Foltz deserted Clara and his children, allegedly for a mistress, leaving her to fend for herself and her children.

Clara Foltz initially struggled for income doing work acceptable for women for the time such as sewing, taking in boarders and teaching. She discovered a talent for public speaking, a valuable skill for the time, providing her with income from lecturing on suffrage. Her sharp mind and strong ability to articulate and write led her to believe she could achieve yet bigger things. With the encouragement and help of wealthy San Jose suffragette Sarah Knox-Goodrich, she decided to pursue the study of law, initially naïve of the difficulties facing women in the field. This quickly became evident to her when she applied for a legal apprenticeship with prestigious San Francisco lawyer, Francis Spencer. His response was to call her desire to study law “foolish” that “would invite nothing but ridicule if not contempt” and “a woman's place is at home, unless it is as a teacher.“ Undeterred, Foltz found an apprenticeship at the much less prestigious law office of C.C. Stephens, with whom her father practiced law.

Foltz learned early that, to become licensed to practice law in California, she could meet all requirements except for being a “white male citizen.” So, in 1878, just before being ready to take the bar examination, she drafted the “Woman Lawyer’s Bill” for introduction in the state legislature, replacing the phrase “white male citizen” with “citizen or person.” With her children in the care of friends, she camped out in Sacramento with friend and fellow suffragette Laura de Force Gordon to lobby for the bill. The bill narrowly passed in the state senate and assembly, but came to a halt on Governor William Irwin’s desk. Concerned that the bill would expire unsigned by the end of the last day of that legislative session, Foltz fought her way through a throng of last-minute lobbyists outside the governor's office and managed to obtain an audience with him. He agreed to examine the bill after hearing her earnest appeal and, in the waning hours of that day, signed it. It was said that the governor had to retrieve the bill from his discard pile.

On September 5, 1878, a day after Foltz passed the bar examination, she became the first woman to be admitted to the California Bar. Within a year, she and Gordon managed to have a clause added to the new California Constitution that prohibited any state law that barred women from entering any "lawful business, avocation, or profession."

Although Foltz was already successfully practicing law, she and Gordon (now California’s second woman lawyer), applied for admission to the new Hastings College of Law opened in 1878 in San Francisco. It was the first law school in the Western United States. Foltz and Gordon hoped to add formal education to their legal training. The college did not formally prohibit female students, but founder Judge Hastings rejected their applications, explaining that their presence and “rustling skirts…was bothering other scholars.” Representing themselves, Foltz and Gordon sued the college all the way to the California Supreme Court and eventually won admission. By then, however, they had moved past the need for formal law studies.

Foltz practiced law in San Francisco, San Diego, New York and Denver. When she lived in San Diego, she found time to establish and edit the Daily Bee, a daily newspaper. In 1906, after the devastation of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, Foltz moved to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, she joined the teaching staff at the Los Angeles College of Law (now University of Southern California Gould School of Law). She continued giving public lectures, speaking on suffrage and stumping on behalf of political campaigns around the country. The press nicknamed her the “Portia of the Pacific.”

Clara Shortridge Foltz

Clara Shortridge Foltz, unknown date. Photo at Los Angeles City Historical Society, from Security Pacific National Bank Collection at Los Angeles Public Library.

Early in her practice, some of Foltz’s clients were indigent. This experience formed her views on the need for competent legal representation for defendants who were unable to afford a lawyer. Until then, legal aid had been available to indigent defendants, but it often came in the form of inexperienced, incompetent, or outright shyster lawyers. At the same time, unscrupulous prosecutors, sometimes paid conviction bonuses or paid “tips” by victims, preyed on vulnerable defendants to rack up convictions. Foltz believed that government public defenders could level the playing field for indigent defendants and guarantee qualified and competent legal representation.

In 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, Foltz, representing the California Bar at the Congress of Jurisprudence and Law Reform, presented her views on the need for public defenders. She later offered model statutes for introduction in state legislatures to establish public defender offices. Foltz’s efforts were finally rewarded in 1913 when Los Angeles County established the first Public Defender’s office in the nation. In 1921, California adopted the “Foltz Defender Bill” to provide public defenders throughout the state.

Foltz accomplish a number of other notable “firsts” for women. Among them:

  • 1879, first woman lawyer to argue before the California Supreme Court.
  • 1880, first woman to serve as a legislative counsel.
  • 1881, first woman to prosecute a murder case (special counsel to prosecute the People v. Wheeler murder trial in San Francisco). Foltz’s opposing counsel was friend Laura Gordon, making it the first trial where opposing counsel were both women.
  • 1887, first woman to hold a statewide office (Board of the State Normal School, future California State University System).
  • 1891, first woman to become a notary public in California.
  • 1905, first woman director of a major bank, United Bank and Trust Company in San Francisco.
  • 1910, first woman in the U.S. to serve as a deputy district attorney (Los Angeles County).
  • 1930, at the age of 81, first woman to run for Governor of California.

Foltz died in Los Angeles on September 2, 1934, and was cremated and interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery. California Governor Frank Merriam and prominent federal and state judges served as her pallbearers.

In 1991, Hastings College of Law posthumously awarded a Doctor of Laws to Foltz. In 2002, the Superior Court of Los Angeles County renamed its Criminal Courts Building to the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center.

Clara Shortridge Foltz, Criminal Justice Center, Courthouse, Los Angeles

Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, corner of Spring and Temple Streets, Los Angeles. Los Angeles Almanac photo.

Clara Shortridge Foltz, Criminal Justice Center, Courthouse, Los Angeles

Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, Los Angeles. Los Angeles Almanac photo.

Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz, Barbara Babcock (Stanford University Press, 2011)
Who Was Clara Shortridge Foltz? Sam Wright
Who the Heck is Clara Shortridge Foltz? Kelly Wallace, Los Angeles Public Library
A hundred years later, a trailblazer gets her due, Kristina Horton Flaherty
Clara Shortridge Foltz, Wikipedia
Clara Shortridge Foltz: "First Woman" by Barbara Allen Babcock