In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day (March 8) we thought we’d try something a bit different for the blog. We asked the foreign law specialists, analysts, and interns at the Law Library of Congress to provide responses to a series of questions related to the history of women’s rights in various countries. Margaret also contributed information on the U.S. We particularly wanted to highlight some of the important milestones and people around the world in three areas: women’s suffrage, political participation, and involvement in the legal profession.
Today, in our third and final post of the series, we discover who the first women lawyers and judges were in different countries. In the two previous posts, we looked at women’s voting rights and representation in national legislatures.
QUESTIONS: When did a woman first graduate from law school? When were women first admitted to the practice of law? When was the first female judge appointed? How many of the current judges of the highest court are women?
ARGENTINA (by Graciela Rodriguez-Ferrand): Maria Angélica Barredas was the first woman admitted to practice law in Argentina in 1910. Margarita Argúas was the first woman to be appointed judge of the Supreme Court in Argentina in 1970 during the military government. Currently, Elena Highton de Nolasco is the only woman member of the seven-member Supreme Court, after the death in 2014 of Carmen Argibay, who was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court under a democratic government.
BRAZIL (by Eduardo Soares): The first woman to graduate from law school in Brazil was Myrthes Gomes de Campos, who finished law school in 1898. However, it was not until 1906 that Campos was admitted to the Institute of Brazilian Lawyers (Instituto dos Advogados do Brasil), the equivalent at that time to the Brazilian Bar Association, and then authorized to start practicing law. In Brazil, trial judges are not appointed; they are required to take an exam. The first woman to become a judge in the country was Thereza Grisólia Tang, who in 1954 took the exam and passed, and became the substitute judge of the 12th circuit of the state of Santa Catarina. Currently, 2 of the 10 ministers of the Federal Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal) are women: Minister Cármen Lúcia, and Minister Rosa Weber.
CHINA (by Laney Zhang): The history of legal education and the legal profession in the early years of the PRC could be the subject of a book. Technically, however, the legal profession was not formally established until 1979-1980, but women have never been excluded from law schools, legal practice, or judgeship throughout the history of the PRC. In fact, there were women law graduates and lawyers even prior to the founding of the PRC in 1949. For example, the first Minister of Justice of the PRC, Ms. Liang Shi, graduated from law school and started practicing law in the 1920-30s before she was appointed as a minister in 1949. In the current Supreme People’s Court, 3 of the 16 court leaders are women.
EGYPT (by George Sadek): The first woman lawyer in Egypt was Naima Ilyas al-Ayyubi, who graduated with a law degree from Cairo University in 1933. In 2003, Tahani al-Gebali became the first woman to hold a judicial position in Egypt when she was appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak to be the Vice President of the Supreme Constitutional Court; a position that she held until 2012. She remained the only female judge in Egypt until 2007, when the Supreme Judicial Council selected 31 women to serve as judges in the country.
FRANCE (by Nicolas Boring): It appears that the first woman to graduate from a French university with a law degree was actually from Romania: Sarmisa Bilcesco, who first registered in 1884. She obtained her licentiate in 1887 and a doctorate in 1890. She then returned to Romania, where she was admitted to the bar, thus becoming Europe’s first woman attorney. The first women to be admitted to the bar in France were Olga Petit and Jeanne Chauvin, who were respectively sworn in on December 6 and 19, 1900. It would not be until 1946 that women could become judges in France. However, the proportion of women among French judges has risen very quickly over recent years: women represent 57% of the French judiciary, and recent graduating classes from the Ecole nationale de la magistrature (National Judges’ School) have been composed of up to 80% women.
GERMANY (by Wendy Zeldin): Women were admitted to universities in Germany, depending on the state, between 1900 and 1909; in 1913, among 9,003 law students in the German empire, there were 51 women. However, until the passage of the Law on the Admission of Women to the Offices and Professions of Justice [Gesetz über die Zulassung der Frauen zu den Ämtern und Berufen der Rechtspflege], on July 11, 1922, women graduates were not permitted to take the state examination necessary for the practice of law in Germany. Germany’s first woman judge was Maria Hagemeyer, who became a judge of the district court of Bonn in 1927. In 1933, however, all female judges were dismissed by the Nazi regime. Erna Scheffler was the first woman to be appointed as a justice of the Federal Constitutional Court, in 1951; Jutta Limbach was its first female president in 1994. There are currently five women among the 16 justices of the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht, BVerfG).
GREECE (by Theresa Papademetriou): The first woman admitted to practice law in Greece was Efharis Petridou, who became a member of the Athens Bar Association in 1925. Women were not able to become judges until 1955. Currently in the Greek Supreme Court (Areios Pagos), 24 judges are women and 44 are men. The first woman to be elected as president of the Court was Rena Asimakopoulou in 2011. She held the position until 2013.
INDONESIA (by Kelly Buchanan): In the 1950s, five women became the first female judges in Indonesia’s lower civil courts. Women were also hearing cases in the Islamic courts as early as the 1960s, and formal appointments have been made since the passage of Law No. 7 of 1989 on the Religious Judicature. Since the mid-1990s, nearly all of the district religious courts have had female judges. The first woman appointed to the Indonesian Supreme Court (the final court of appeal) was Sri Widoyati Wiratmo Soekito in 1968. The Constitutional Court was established in 2003. Maria Farida Indrati was the first woman to be appointed as a Constitutional Court justice in 2008 and is currently the only woman on the nine-member Court.
ISRAEL (by Ruth Levush): A small number of women were active in pursuing legal education in the Jewish community in Palestine during the British Mandate. Although Rosa Ginossar (1890-1979) was actually the second woman admitted to the bar, a few weeks after Freda Slutzkin, she was “reportedly the first – and for years, the only – woman to actually practice law in Mandatory Palestine.” Ginossar immigrated to Israel in 1908 and later received her law diploma from the University of Paris on October 19, 1913. In 1922, she returned to Palestine, where her request to take the examination for foreign lawyers and be admitted to the Palestine bar was initially rejected. She later petitioned to the High Court of Justice and was granted permission in a ground-breaking decision rendered by the Court on February 15, 1930. She received her bar license on July 26, 1930. Miriam Ben-Porat became the first female justice of the Supreme Court in 1976. She served as deputy president of the Supreme Court, from 1983 to 1988, when she retired from the court. The current president of the Supreme Court is Miriam Naor and there are 4 other women out of the total of 17 justices of the Court.
JAPAN (by Sayuri Umeda): In 1929, Meiji University became the first school to make it possible for female students to study law. In 1940, the first three women were admitted to the bar, following a 1936 revision of the relevant law: Masako Nakata, who later became the director of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations; Yoshiko Sanfuchi, who became the first female judge in 1949; and Ai Kume, who was one of the founding members and the first chairperson of the Japan Women’s Bar Association established in 1950 and later a delegate to the United Nations. Currently, 3 of the 15 members of the Supreme Court of Japan are women.
MEXICO (by Gustavo Guerra): María Asunción Sandoval de Zarco was the first woman to graduate from law school in Mexico in 1898. Luz María Perdomo Juvera was the first female federal judge appointed in 1974. Currently, 2 of the 10 Mexican Supreme Court justices (there is one vacancy) are women: Olga María del Carmen Sánchez Cordero de García Villegas and Margarita Beatriz Luna Ramos.
NEW ZEALAND (by Kelly Buchanan): Ethel Benjamin became New Zealand’s first woman lawyer when she was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand in May 1897. She was formally awarded a bachelor of laws degree in July 1897. Her admission to the bar followed the passage of the Female Law Practitioners Act, 1896. The first woman judge was Dame Augusta Wallace, who was appointed to the district court bench in 1975. New Zealand’s current chief justice is Dame Sian Elias, who was appointed to the position in 1999. There is currently one other woman judge on the six-member Supreme Court bench.
NICARAGUA (by Norma Gutiérrez): Dr. Olga Nuñez de Saballos became the first Nicaraguan woman attorney in 1945, before being elected to the National Assembly in 1957. The first woman judge was Joaquina Vega, who was appointed to the local court of Matiguas, Matagalpa in 1948. There are currently 5 women justices on the sixteen-member Supreme Court of Justice, including the president, Dr. Alba Luz Ramos Vanega.
PAKISTAN (by Tariq Ahmad): In 1994, Justice Majida Rizvi was appointed as the the first woman judge of a High Court in Pakistan. In December 2013, Ashraf Jehan became the first female judge to be appointed to Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court. There are currently no women on Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
RUSSIA (by Peter Roudik): Ekaterina Fleischitz (1888-1968) was the first Russian female criminal defense lawyer. She graduated from the Sorbonne University law school in 1907 and passed the exams for the full law course of St. Petersburg University in 1909. On November 5, 1909, she was allowed by the court to represent a client but was later removed from the case by the Minister of Justice. In 1911, women were allowed to be admitted to Russian law schools; however, they could not practice law until 1917. In the Russian Empire, women were not allowed to be judges; however, during the Soviet period, involvement of women in the judiciary became a political factor. Reportedly, in 1924, women made up 13.7% of judges in the country, and this figure increased to 18.8% in 1926. Later, judgeship was considered a female profession with women in different periods making up to 80% of the Soviet/Russian judiciary. Today, 3 of the 19 members of the Constitutional Court are women.
SOUTH AFRICA (by Hanibal Goitom): Between 1909 and 1912, Madeline Wookey unsuccessfully challenged in court the Cape Law Society’s refusal to admit her to practice law. Women were allowed to join the legal profession from March 1923 following the passage of the Women’s Legal Practitioners Act 7 of 1923. In May of that year, Irene Antoinette Geffen became the first woman to be admitted to the bar. In 1969, Leonora van den Heever became the first woman judge in South Africa. In 1991 she became the first female judge to be permanently appointed to the appellate division of the Supreme Court. In 1995, Navanethem Pillay became the first black woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. At present, 6 of the 23 judges on the Supreme Court of Appeal and 2 of the 10 justices on the Constitutional Court are women.
THAILAND (by Ployparn Ekraksasilpchai): The first law student was Khunying Ram Phrommobon Bunyaprasop, who attended the first law school in Thailand in 1927 (B.E. 2470) and was admitted as the first woman barrister in 1930 (B.E. 2473). The first female judge, Ms. Chalorjit Jittarutta, was appointed in 1965 (B.E. 2508). The Constitutional Court consists of nine judges, none of whom are currently women.
UNITED KINGDOM (by Clare Feikert): Elizabeth Orme was the first woman to graduate with a bachelor of laws (LLB) from the University of London in 1888. The first female law graduates in Scotland were Eveline MacLaren and Josephine Gordon Stuart, who both obtained a bachelor of laws from the University of Edinburgh in 1909. The 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act paved the way for women to become admitted into the legal profession. Women were first admitted to the Law Society in 1922. The first four women to be admitted were Maud Crofts, Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup, and Mary Sykes. Carrie Morrison was the first out of the four to finish her articles and be admitted as a lawyer in England. Margaret Kidd was the first woman to be admitted by the Scottish bar in 1922 and later became the first woman appointed as King’s Counsel in 1948. The first appointed female judge was Elizabeth Lane in 1962. Currently, 1 of the 12 justices of the Supreme Court is a woman.
UNITED STATES (by Margaret Wood): Arabella Mansfield was the first woman admitted to the bar in 1869 in Iowa. She had not studied at a law school but rather had studied in her brother’s office for two years before taking the bar examination. Curiously enough, in the same year Ada H. Kepley became the first woman in the United States to graduate from law school. A year later, in 1870, Esther Morris was appointed as a justice of the peace in Wyoming Territory – the first woman in the United States appointed to a judicial position. Genevieve Cline was the first woman appointed to a federal court in 1928 when President Coolidge nominated her for a seat on the U.S. Customs Court. She remained on the court for 25 years. Florence Allen, who had previously been a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court, was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit in 1932, making her the first woman to be appointed as a judge to a federal appeals court. Currently, there are three women on the U.S. Supreme Court, 1/3 of that body.
UPDATE: The blog post was updated on March 8, 2022, to correct the entry on Germany regarding the first female judge on the constitutional court.