The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: “Woman Lawyer” by Barbara Babcock

It’s easy to imagine that the whole subject of women as glamorous public intellectuals–balancing their fabulous public images against the demands of raising their children and the slights and slimes of gender stereotyping–was all an invention of the 2010 presidential election season. But long before Hillary Clinton’s tears and Sarah Palin’s hockey mom, savvy American women were fighting their way into the public sphere, with a burp cloth in one hand and a copy of the Constitution in the other.

Stanford Law School’s Barbara Babcock has written a wonderful biography of one of America’s forgotten “firsts.” The book is called Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz . (Disclosure, I was a student of Babcock’s, who was also one of America’s “firsts”–the first woman appointed to the regular Stanford faculty and the first director of the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C.) Babcock’s book is about Clara Shortridge Foltz, an undereducated farmer’s wife, and the abandoned single mother of five children, who managed to become the first woman admitted to the California Bar. California was changing rapidly in the 1870s, new ideas were everywhere; new characters could invent themselves overnight. And so Foltz managed to game the media, persuade all-male juries, and convince reluctant state legislators to listen to her. In so doing, she also managed to become a leading light of the women’s equality movement, the suffrage movement, and the push for a public defender system, as well as an advocate of other important progressive legal reforms that are still with us today.

This book is an unsentimental treatment of both a character and a period in time that couldn’t be more riveting–a moment in which American women were both powerless and empowered at the same time. If you are interested in legal history, in women and the law, or in women and the media, Woman Lawyer will prove hard to put down–unspooling an unforgettable tale of a woman who probably should have inspired her own Disney movie, yet somehow has been all but lost to history.