by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In 2002, the Criminal Courts Building, completed thirty years earlier in downtown Los Angeles, was renamed for the first female lawyer on the West Coast of the United States and the earliest proponent of an office of public defender: Clara Shortridge Foltz (1849-1934).
This remarkable woman was a trailblazer in so many ways. Born in Indiana and raised there and in Iowa, where her father was an attorney, Foltz had a rare education at a co-educational facility. At fifteen, however, she eloped with a Civil War veteran and farmer, Jeremiah Foltz, and settled in as a housewife, bearing five children.
The Foltzes moved west, living in such places as Portland, Oregon and San Jose. She demonstrated a keen interest in writing from early on and had some articles published in a San Jose newspaper and a magazine. In 1876, however, she was deserted by her husband and left to raise her children as a single mother.
She supported her family by lectures on women’s suffrage and read law in the office of her father and partners. She had to sue the Hastings College of Law at the University of California, Berkeley to be admitted and she graduated from the college. When she sought admission to the bar, however, she had to lobby the California legislature to have a bill passed changing the qualifications to include women. In September 1878, she succeeded in being admitted, not only as the first female lawyer on the Pacific Coast, but the third in the nation, and became a clerk for the state assembly’s judiciary committee.
In 1880, she relocated to San Francisco and continued her public speaking career while being an active member of the Republican Party until she switched parties and became a Democrat mid-decade. In 1893, she represented California legal circles at the World’s Fair in Chicago and spoke about the concept of a public defender’s office.
Foltz practiced law in San Francisco and San Diego, where she ran the San Diego Bee newspaper (this was a family interest, as her brother published the San Jose Mercury) for three years, before venturing to New York, where she attempted to develop a corporate law practice between 1896 and 1899. She then returned to San Francisco to practice law for several more years. She pioneered legislation to allow women to be notaries public and to be administrators of estates.
By fall 1906, perhaps as a result of the devastating earthquake and fire in San Francisco the previous April, Foltz migrated south to take up residence and a practice in Los Angeles. She, however, went into other ventures, including the short-lived Woman’s Mining and Stock Exchange, established in 1907, having formed a mining company at Holcomb Valley near Big Bear above San Bernardino. She’d previously formed a bank and trust company in San Francisco and had an oil company in Los Angeles in the early 1920s.
Foltz was heavily involved in manual training in public schools and was the first woman to serve as a trustee of the state normal school system of teacher training (the Los Angeles normal school stood where the central public library is and morphed into U.C.L.A.) She also served on the state board of charities and corrections.
In April 1910, she secured another signal honor when she became the first female deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County. The Los Angeles Herald went so far as to compare her to noted women in world history, including Queen Elizabeth of England and Cleopatra, observing:
Such is the crown under which walks Clara Shortridge Foltz, attorney, apostle forensic of women’s rights, idol of the club women of Los Angeles, member of the bar of California and of New York, the first woman lawyer in the United States to receive such recognition of ability.
Notably, it was stated in the article that the death of her husband led her to pursue her career, although it was later revealed that he did not die until much later and instead abandoned her and their children.
As Progressivism hit its reform peak in 1911 with the successful introduction of the initiative and referendum, the right of women to vote in state elections was another crowning achievement and Foltz authored the constitutional amendment for that issue.
Early in 1916, Foltz moved to another venture, the establishment of a magazine, The New American Woman, which she published and edited. Tonight’s highlighted artifact is the third issue of this publication from April. Though the publication only lasted two years, being suspended in August 1918, Foltz’s journal was said in a Los Angeles Times editorial announcing the news to have
been successful and creditable. It has been a champion of modern thought and has been highly respected. Mrs. Foltz will publish her series of articles “Struggles and Triumphs of a Woman Lawyer,” in book form.
The first chapter in that story was published in the third issue and in it she talked of how, in her youth, “I found myself regarding women as a class and Atlas-like with the weight of the world upon them.” She related that her mother told her to be patient and wait before publicly expressing her views. Her father, however, told her mother, “I’m sorry that girl was not born a boy, for then she would have become a great lawyer yet” and told Foltz that he could have educated her in the law.
Foltz wrote, however, that she was unhappy with his remarks, stating “I believed then, as I know now, that woman is the salt of the earth, the saving grace of humankind.” But, she went on, her mother asked her father to stop making these remarks because “some of these days she will take it into her head to study law, and if she does, nobody on earth can stop her.”
Even as she eloped and married at sixteen and had three children in as many years, Foltz read avidly and dreamed, even, she said, she “was and am a worshipper of the home . . . I love to wash dishes and clean house and cook and sew and all the rest of it.” Yet, “it is a poor excuse . . . of a woman who takes no interest in the affairs of her country, who is too much engrossed in minor affairs to help society solve its intricate and vexatious problems.”
Foltz also wrote of her suffrage work and the difficulty of dealing with detractors such as the “Immortal Fifty Antis,” prominent men who sought to quash the efforts of women in California to secure the vote in 1911. She added “our cause also needed defense . . . [so] the Votes for Women Club held an ‘indignation mass meeting’ after our own jolly fashion. She cited Mary Foy, the first woman librarian in Los Angeles, and her speech at the meeting on suffrage, and how Foltz “helped her along the best I could” with $50 secured in contributions.
In her piece, Foltz offered her prior prophecy that “when women gained suffrage, woman lawyers would receive better fees and a larger share of business.” Though, by 1916, “the showing has not been perceptible . . . women lawyers will go right on, studying and perfecting themselves for the ‘big business’ that is sure to come.”
She ended this first part of her story by quickly summarizing her initial efforts to secure admission to the Hastings College of Law, observing that “my march . . . was confronted by the opposition of as accomplished cavaliers as ever deigned to oppose fair lady.” She wrote that “my name was on every tongue” and there was media coverage “of my exploits.”
While lawyers were anything but sympathetic, she wrote that “the able men at the Bar of California praised my efforts” and offered “an encouraging word.” She also noted
For as I look back over the hard journey and recall the difficulties which seemed insurmountable, and the obstacles that would have awed the heart of the stoutest man, I am amazed at my own temerity!
The issue offered plenty of other material of interest, including editorials about patriotism, even though she’d returned to the Republican Party by then (and ran for governor under the banner at 81 years of age in the 1930 primary campaign, garnering 8,000 votes) and noted she was hardly a supporter of President Woodrow Wilson.
Poetry, book reviews, a statement of praise about Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, comments about legal matters (such as contracts), notes about music, and letters of encouragement for The New American Woman were also found in the eighteen pages of the magazine.
Local advertisements were also included, of course, to seek to cover the costs of publication and none was as interesting as the proposed “Chautauqua of the Pacific,” a grandiose scheme for a massive Byzantine-style domed auditorium for Chautauqua-style educational programs that was planned atop Mount Washington, northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The project, which involved such luminaries as musical impresario L.E. Behymer, Mayor Charles Sebastian (who soon resigned because of scandal), historian Rockwell Hunt, business leader William May Garland, George Bovard (president of U.S.C.), and, of course, Foltz, never got beyond this early visionary stage.
Next year, the Homestead will commemorate the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution granting women the right to vote in federal elections with exhibits and programs, so the story of the extraordinary Clara Shortridge Foltz is a notable prelude to what will come in 2020.