In honor of Women’s History Month,
we invite you to read the inspiring stories of these women,
each of whom was a “first” in some aspect of legal history.
Justice Ruth McGregor
“Decades before internet memes turned Ruth Bader Ginsberg into the Notorious RBG, O’Connor was the first Supreme Court justice as rock star. From the moment she took the bench, she was a figure of history …” said then NYT Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse about iconic Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor reflects on her life-changing experience as one of Justice O’Connor’s first law clerks.
In 1981, history happened, and McGregor’s life and legal career took a detour. She was driving when President Regan announced the name of the new Supreme Court Justice on the radio: Sandra Day O’Connor. McGregor burst into tears (as did so many other women lawyers hearing the news). She pulled her car onto a side street until she could see to drive. She did not then know her own life would change, when a few weeks later, Justice O’Connor asked her to become one of her law clerks.
McGregor became the first of Justice O’Connor’s nontraditional clerks. Law was McGregor’s second career. She took the clerkship when she was thirty-eight years old, and she came from private practice, not an appellate clerkship.
Justice O’Connor’s first clerks faced unique challenges as well as unanticipated opportunities. McGregor’s experience as a clerk also proved pivotal to her future legal life. Her experience with Justice O’Connor resulted in her applying for a position on the Arizona Court of Appeals. During her twenty years as an appellate judge, McGregor thought often of the lessons she learned from Justice O’Connor: consider each case with care; resolve the issues as best you can; and move on to the next case. She feels that like all women in law, she owes an enormous debt to Justice O’Connor, who encouraged women to take pathways they scarcely could have imagined without her work as a trailblazer.
Read Justice McGregor’s insights into this historic time in MY LIFE AS A LAW CLERK: JUSTICE O’CONNOR’S FIRST TERM (pg 5)
Annette Abbott Adams
An accomplished trial lawyer and Assistant U.S. Attorney, with an appetite for the toughest cases, Annette Abbott Adams (1887-1956) was the first woman to serve as a Presidentially-appointed United States Attorney. Her appointment as United States Attorney in San Francisco (N.D. Calif.) in 1918 — before the ratification of the 19th Amendment — meant she could not have voted for President Wilson, who appointed her. She went on to become an Assistant Attorney General at Main Justice (also a first) and then as the first woman Justice on the California Court of Appeal.
Adams grew up in a small town in Plumas County in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, surrounded first by the legal books of her father, a justice of the peace, and then, after her father died, by the accounting books that her mother kept for the family store. In 1903, she moved to Berkeley to attend the University of California, where she earned a bachelor of law degree in 1904. Rather than proceeding to Boalt Hall for her J.D., which would have permitted her to practice law, she headed back north and became one of the first female high school principals in California.
As a high school principal, Adams was a prominent figure in her community. Local Superior Court Judge John Raker urged Adams to go back to Berkeley to complete her legal education. She was one of the first women to obtain a law degree from the University of California. In the first decade of the twentieth century, most law schools excluded women, and the percentage of women lawyers in the country hovered between .05 percent and 1.0 percent.
She completed her J.D. in 1912 but was unable to find a position practicing law in the Bay Area, so she returned to Modoc. Again Raker, now a Congressman for
California, intervened. He counseled Adams to go back to San Francisco. Adams returned to San Francisco, became the president of the Women’s State Democratic Club of San Francisco, and worked toward the election of Woodrow Wilson, even though she did not yet have the right to vote for a candidate in a national election. She also started a private practice and was so spectacular in her defense of a criminal client that, at the end of the trial, the U.S. Attorney offered her the job of Assistant United States Attorney.
Adams’ statewide reputation as an outstanding litigator and writer was rewarded in 1942, when Governor Culbert Olson appointed her soon after her sixty-fifth birthday as the Presiding Justice of the California Court of Appeals. She was the first woman to be appointed to California’s Court of Appeals. Her extraordinary forty-year legal career, from 1912 to 1952, deserved celebration by any measure, but also was almost unimaginable for a woman of her day. Read more in Andrea Sheridan Ordin’s excellent article, REMEMBERING ANNETTE ABBOTT ADAMS (p.59)
Thirty-seven years before Justice O’Connor smashed the glass ceiling for justices, Helen Lucile Lomen became the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court law clerk, in the 1944–1945 term for Justice William O. Douglas. Her fascinating life story begins with her birth in Nome, Alaska, in 1920. The Lomen family had arrived from Minnesota in 1903 and quickly established themselves as a family with great influence, with several commercial establishments, including a pharmacy, a photography studio, and the Lomen Reindeer Corporation. Lucile’s uncle Carl Lomen was known as “The Reindeer King of Alaska.”
But the last thing Lucile Lomen wanted was to go into the reindeer business—or any of the other commercial ventures her family had started. She admired her grandfather Gutbrand J. Lomen, a lawyer and vice counsel for Norway. As a child Lomen observed that her grandfather could sit in his chair with a book as long as he wanted to and, unlike Lomen, whose mother urged her to go out to play, nobody would tell him to go out and play. She thought to herself, “lawyers can just sit and read, and I am going to be a lawyer.”
The Lomen family moved to Seattle in 1934. Seattle in 1934 was a city of more than 200,000, and it was daunting to fourteen-year-old Lucile Lomen. She felt excluded at Queen Anne High School, with its 2,500 students (more than double the entire population of Nome), but she got along very well with her teachers, who encouraged her studies by recommending books for her to read.
Lomen was expected to go to the University of Washington, but a presentation at the high school by a speaker from Whitman College changed her mind and her decision to attend Whitman College turned out to be instrumental to her later career path. Lomen flourished at Whitman College. She then went to the University of Washington School of Law back in Seattle. The University of Washington School of Law had been a leader in accepting women from its inception in 1899. Lomen entered the law school as one of six women in a class of one hundred in 1941 and graduated number one in her class.
The sudden dearth of qualified men caused by World War II, the Whitman College connection, the pipeline from University of Washington School of Law Dean Falknor to the chambers of Justice Douglas, and Justice Douglas’s decision to focus on law schools within the Ninth Circuit all combined to bring Lucile Lomen to Justice Douglas’s attention, but it was her remarkable intellect and scholarship that ultimately sealed the deal, leading him to hire her as the first female Supreme Court law clerk. Judge Robert Lasnik (W.D. Wash.) tells the story of this barrier-breaking woman in GO EAST, YOUNG WOMAN: BREAKING THE SUPREME COURT CLERK GENDER BARRIER (p.71)
These stories and others are published in our most recent issue of Western Legal History, simply labeled “First.”