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Clara Shortridge Foltz  

July  16,  1849  –  September  2,  1934  


The first female lawyer to practice on the Pacific coast of the US, first woman admitted to the California bar and first woman to run for Governor of California. A single mother of five children she was a leader in the women's voting rights movement and the first to champion the concept of public defenders. The Criminal Court Building in Los Angeles was renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Centre in her honour in 2002.  

Born in 1849 in New Lisbon Indiana she was instrumental in opening the California bar to women, became  a pioneering force for women in the profession and a major influence in reforming the state’s criminal justice and prison systems. She taught school in her youth and in 1864 married Jeremiah R.

Foltz, with whom she moved to California. Widowed in 1877, she undertook the reading of law in the office of a local attorney. On discovering that the California constitution limited admission to the bar to white males, she drew up an amendment striking out those limiting qualifications and, aided by Laura D. Gordon and others, pushed it through the legislature in 1878. That year she became the first woman admitted to legal practice in California.  

Collection of the artist. Montreal, Canada. Portrait on canvas.

In 1879, denied admission to the state-supported Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, she brought suit and, again with Gordon’s help, argued her case successfully up to the state Supreme Court. That year she and Gordon became the second and third women admitted to practice before the state Supreme Court. 

Foltz served as clerk of the state assembly’s judiciary committee in1879–80. Her private legal practice in San Francisco grew rapidly, and in 1893 she organized the Portia Law Club with other women lawyers of the city. During 1887–90 she lived in San Diego where she founded  and edited the daily San Diego Bee. Later she resided and practiced briefly in new York City.

She played a leading role in the campaign that secured the vote for women in state elections in 1911, and shortly thereafter she served for a year or two as the first woman deputy district attorney in Los Angeles. 

From 1910 to 1912 Foltz was the first woman member of the State Board of Charities and Corrections, a post awarded her on the strength of her long efforts for reforms in criminal procedure and prison  administration, including the appointment of public defenders for indigent defendants and the segregation of juvenile offenders from adult prisoners. She was also responsible for legislation that allowed women to serve as executors and administrators of estates and to hold commissions as notaries public. In 1916–18 she published the New American Woman magazine. She was long active in state politics. In1930, at age 81, she entered the Republican gubernatorial primary; although she lost, she received a respectable vote. The New York Times reported that she won eight thousand votes. From 1888 to 1890 she was associated with the Democratic Party. In 1890 she became interested in the utopian socialism of Bellamy Nationalism, and two years later, Populism. In 1892 she ran for San Francisco city attorney on the People's Party ticket.   

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