". . . the story of my triumphs will eventually disclose that though the battle has been long and hard-fought it was worthwhile."
In honor of the Centennial of the passage of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote, we featured a piece in our local newspaper every month about a famous suffragist.
In July, we published the final entry in our series: suffragist, lawyer, publisher and single mother of five, Clara Shortridge Foltz.
The article and additional information about Clara Shortridge Foltz appear below.
Give a Fig About Voting
By Karie Lew
It’s difficult to say whether Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman lawyer in California and a leader in the movement for woman suffrage, would be surprised by the less-than-inspiring modern voter-turnout statistics in the United States. In 1890, when women’s political equality was at a low point both in California and across the nation and Foltz herself was struggling personally and professionally, she was quoted in a San Francisco newspaper as blaming “the vast majority of women who do not give a single fig for the privilege of voting” for their lack of political power. Perhaps a reporter caught her in an unguarded moment of venting her frustration that so many women seemed uninterested in having a voice in
- Foltz in 1924 -
elections—or perhaps this statement represented a calculated strategy by the savvy Foltz to motivate more members of her sex to join one of the causes for which she fought so passionately. Maybe it was a bit of both. More than a century later, those who cast their vote despite significant obstacles and those who dedicate themselves to reducing barriers to voting for others may wonder something similar about those who have but do not exercise their right to vote: Don’t they give a fig?
Foltz was born in Indiana in 1849 as Carrie Shortridge and grew up in Iowa. Her father was a lawyer turned preacher. Her mother was an invaluable source of support who enabled Foltz—abandoned by the father of her five children—to pursue careers as an attorney, political reformer, public thinker, lecturer, publisher, lobbyist, and founder of the public-defender movement. After playing a key role in broadening California’s statutory eligibility for becoming a lawyer from “white male citizen[s]” to “any citizen or person,” Foltz became, in 1878, the first woman admitted to practice law in this state. She also successfully sued California’s first law school (Hastings, a branch of the University of California) for its refusal to admit women.
A woman with an impressive list of firsts (detailed in her 2011 biography, Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz), Foltz kept suffrage at the center of much of her advocacy. An activist on many fronts, she recognized the interconnections among efforts to educate, empower, elevate, and defend those who lacked financial resources and political power. Votes for women was the subject of her first speech as a public lecturer, given in 1877 in San Jose. After returning from the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, she founded the Portia Club to prepare women to vote by teaching them law, and she endorsed the suffragist strategy of having women attend court trials, not only as a show of support for women litigants and attorneys but also as an assertion of the full privileges of citizenship. Not forgetting the importance of male allies in the fight for woman suffrage, Foltz praised them for their “manly brains” and “manly hearts and courage.”
The League of Women Voters, whose mission is to empower voters and defend democracy, shares many of Foltz’s values and insights about the connections between education and civic participation—even as it may lack some of her colorful witticisms. If you give a fig about voting, please consider joining us. We welcome all people—of any gender—who have brains, heart, courage, and a commitment to continuing the progress of the inspiring leaders who paved the way for the 100-year anniversary of woman suffrage as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Learn more about the League at https://www.LWVML.org.
- Lew and Babcock -
Author's note: I dedicate this article to Barbara Babcock (1938-2020), Foltz’s biographer and herself an impressive, larger-than-life woman of many firsts, including first director of the District of Columbia Public Defender Service, first woman on the Stanford Law School faculty, and one of the first women to be a U.S. assistant attorney general. She and I planned to write this article together, which would have been an honor for me more than 18 years after I took her civil procedure class at Stanford Law and later helped her with research for Woman Lawyer. Though her recent death is a profound loss to so many, those who had the privilege to know her—or even simply to hear her speak—will forever be buoyed by the inspiration and laughter her memory evokes. Learn more about this amazing woman by reading her 2016 memoir, Fish Raincoats.
This is the fifth and final article in a series honoring the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage.
Sponsored by: Law Office of Jim Cherry, Law Office of Sally Chenault, Frank Russell Attorney at Law, Tuolumne County Bar Association, National Hotel and Restaurant, and Members of the local League
Foltz photo used with permission from Women's Legal History, Robert Crown Library at Stanford Law School
Quotes from Clara Shortridge Foltz
“No one should have to buy justice in a land that boasts that justice is free.”
"They called me the lady lawyer, a dainty soubriquet that enabled me to maintain a dainty manner as I browbeat my way through the marshes of ignorance and prejudice.”
She once retorted to a trial opponent’s ridicule exclaiming: “Counsel intimates with a curl on his lip that I am called the lady lawyer. I am sorry I cannot return the compliment, but I cannot. I never heard anybody call him any kind of a lawyer at all.”
"If woman’s influence is purifying in all other relations what sophistry to exclude her from the polls, the sacred shrine of liberty."
"I am descended from the heroic stock of Daniel Boone and never shrank from a contest nor knew a fear."
"Did God fail in His last crowning work when He made woman, that she is not the equal of man? Genius, talent and hard labor know no sex."
"Everything in retrospect seems weird, phantasmal, and unreal. I peer back across the misty years into that era of prejudice and limitation, when a woman lawyer was a joke ... but the story of my triumphs will eventually disclose that though the battle has been long and hard-fought it was worth while."
Additional Lifetime Achievements
After helping open the California bar to women, Foltz became a pioneering force for women in the profession and a major influence in reforming the state’s criminal justice and prison systems.
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.
Foltz was the first woman deputy district attorney in Los Angeles.
Foltz was responsible for legislation that allowed women to serve as executors and administrators of estates and to hold commissions as notaries public.
Foltz founded and published the daily San Diego Bee and New American Woman Magazine, for which she wrote a monthly column until her death.
In 1930, at age 81, she entered the Republican gubernatorial primary; although she lost, she received a respectable vote.