by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As noted here previously, Clara Shortridge Foltz (1849-1934) was the first woman lawyer admitted to the bar in California (and just the third in the nation), achieving that milestone in 1878, just two years after she was deserted by her husband and left to raise their children and seek a unique place in the working world for a woman.
Foltz, who was involved in 1899 in the remarkable legal tangle involving the tragic Yda Addis, moved from San Francisco, perhaps because of the devastating earthquake and fire, to Los Angeles in spring 1906 and established a practice in the Angel City. In 1910, she was appointed to be a deputy district attorney, the first female to hold that position.
That was followed the next year by her writing the amendment to the state constitution giving women the right to vote in state and local elections. She also, between 1916 and 1918, published a magazine, The New American Woman, and engaged in mining and oil ventures, served on the board of the Los Angeles Normal School for teacher education, and was on state boards for charities and corrections.
By the late 1920s, as she approached eighty, Foltz’ activities necessarily slowed, but she continued her legal practice and, in March 1928, made news for a couple of reasons. One was that she received a signal honor in being one of just fourteen, out of 125 initial candidates, for admission to a California Hall of Fame.
San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, Jr. issued a proclamation declaring the 15th to be “Woman’s Day” and all but one of the women was expected to be on the stage at the Women’s Building in the City by the Bay to be inducted. Others included tennis star Helen Moody Wills; Dr. Jessica Peixotto, the first woman to be a professor at the University of California; Annette Abbott Adams, the first female federal attorney; authors Kathleen Norris and Gertrude Atherton; and Representative Florence Prag Kahn, the first woman from California to serve in Congress and one of only three in the House of Representatives at the time.
The second newsworthy item involves today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings, a press photograph from Acme Newspictures of New York and filed in the reference department of the News Enterprise Association on 9 March 1928 of Foltz and Khan. The caption title is “FIRST WOMAN TO PRACTICE LAW IN CALIFORNIA PICTURED IN THE CAPITAL.” The text reads “Mrs. Clara Shortridge Foltz, of Los Angeles, California, a sister of Senator Shortridge, who is the first woman to have practiced law in California. She is pictured with Congresswoman Florence P. Kahn, right of California—when Mrs. Foltz, appeared before the supreme court [sic].”
There was at least one newspaper, in Billings, Montana, that ran the photo, though there was no accompanying article, and the case in which Foltz argued before the nation’s highest court was not located. There was, however, a long article in the Los Angeles Record of the 15th which included an interview with Foltz of her visit, mainly focused on her reunion with her brother, Samuel Shortridge (1861-1952), who was admitted to the bar in California a half-dozen years after Foltz, and who served as a Republican (Foltz, once a Democrat, became a member of the G.O.P.) in the Senate from 1921 to 1933 and then was a special attorney with the Department of Justice from 1939-1943.
The article began “Happy, happy Shortridges—they believe in each other” and then it noted that Foltz, who was in the nation’s capital for about a month, told the paper, “I sat in the senate [sic] galleries and I watched Sam speak [on the question of whether presidents should be able to seek third terms, a matter which arose for the first time a dozen years later when Franklin D. Roosevelt sought, and won, a third term]. Oh my, but he is an authority there. They call him the scholar of the senate. When most of the senators talk, most of their colleagues walk out on them. But when Sam rises they all come back.” She continued to laud her sibling for his modestness and, when it came to his oratorical skills, he purportedly told her, “well, Sister, I always thought if I could get by you, I could get by the rest of them.”
As for her trip, it appears this was Foltz’ first foray to the nation’s capital and she gushed that it was “a wonderful place” and that her brother ensured she saw such sights as the Arlington National Cemetery, George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate, and others. She added, “I was received in Washington beautifully as becomes the first woman lawyer in the country, as they call me.” On 19 February, she related, “I was the guest of the Woman’s City Club of Washington” and marveled that the membership numbered 1,500. She added, “while I love my own California women and my own state I must say that the cultural opportunities of those Washington women are wonderful.”
She had an audience with the First Lady, Mrs. Coolidge, and reported that the reason the President was not seeking reelection in the fall was he “owed it to his wife to retire from the public gaze” and spend time with her. Foltz also had high praise for Mrs. Coolidge as a paragon for what a First Lady should be and relayed that the President told her, “I hope to have the pleasure of visiting your great state.” She answered, “when you come, every one of us will be at the gate to welcome you.” It is not believed Coolidge ever made it to the Golden State, as he lived quietly in his native Vermont after leaving the White House, but he did push a telegraph button to turn on the “Lindbergh beacon” atop Los Angeles City Hall when it was dedicated in late April 1928.
Another highlight of her visit was a confab with Attorney General John G. Sergeant, who she noted, “kept me at his desk for two hours and would not let me go. He wanted to know everything we were doing in California.” She also had fine memories of a meeting with Ellen Spencer Mussey, president of the College of Law for Women, of whom Foltz said, “I call her the woman perfect. She fell in love with me and I her. She wanted to know if I couldn’t come to Washington and live there permanently. But that would be impossible. I have to attend to business here.” With that, the piece ended, she turned to the piles of mail that built up during her prolonged absence.
As to Representative Kahn (1866-1948), she was born in Salt Lake City to Jewish immigrants from Poland, who moved to San Francisco when she was young, though the family business failed. Though she wanted to pursue the law after graduating from the University of California, family finances did not allow for it and she taught high school for a decade before her marriage to Julius Kahn, with whom she had two sons. A former actor and state legislator, Julius was a new member of the House of Representatives at the time of their marriage and remained in office until his death, just after a reelection campaign, in late 1924.
Kahn was encouraged to run for his seat and won the special election two months later, becoming the first Jewish woman elected to Congress. In early 1928, Kahn was one of just three women in Congress, the others being Republican Edith Rogers of Massachusetts and Democrat Mary T. Norton of New Jersey With her quarter-century of experience observing her husband’s lengthy tenure in the House, she adapted quickly in her service. In late February 1928, she became the first woman to serve on the board of the Naval Academy.
On 6 March, she was did an interview with a reporter from the United Press and stated, “we should not support a man for office because he is a man, nor a woman because she is a woman,” adding that “there is no sex in citizenship and there should be none in politics.” As for the role of women in government, she offered that, “through a broad-minded view of the political question and co-operation with the men, women can make themselves most useful in governmental affairs.” A staunch Republican, she told the press service, “I believe in preparedness, an adequate national defense, the protective tariff [a major campaign issue in 1928], and Republican politics in general.” She was ready for the presidential campaign and ended by saying “I am for Hoover, first, last and always.”
Kahn delivered for her district in providing defense appropriations for the Bay Area, an issue important to her late husband, and was the first woman to serve, in the mid-Thirties, on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Her friendship with J. Edgar Hoover, the all-powerful director of the Fedeal Bureau of Investigation, was such that he called her “the mother of the F.B.I.” Despite her clear conservative credentials, Kahn was opposed to Prohibition, believing government should steer away from legislating morality. As Roosevelt Democrats grew in power, however, she was unseated in the 1936 campaign, though she remained active in San Francisco public affairs until her death a dozen years later.
With today being “International Women’s Day,” this photograph and the stories of its two prominent and remarkable female subjects is a modest contribution the Homestead can make in its observance.