One of the most impressive aspects of the legal profession is its ability to open doors and shatter glass ceilings in a variety of professional capacities. Here are thirteen female attorneys who rose to positions of prominence and power in law, government, and politics.
1. Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The second female ever to serve on the United States Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal career is remarkable. She started at Harvard before transferring to Columbia Law School, where she graduated in a tie for first in her class. After law school, Ginsburg focused on academia, teaching civil procedure at Rutgers School of Law and Columbia Law School.
Outside the classroom, Ginsburg spent a substantial part of her legal career as an advocate for gender equality and women’s rights. She won numerous victories arguing before the Supreme Court, volunteering as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970’s. President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980, where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
2. Hillary Rodham Clinton
One could make the argument that Hillary Clinton’s resume is unmatched by any woman in American political history. Despite her failure to capture the Oval Office, she served as a United States Senator and Secretary of State, plus eight years as First Lady of the United States during her husband’s presidency.
After graduating as just one of twenty-seven members of her class at Yale Law School, Hillary chose advocacy over a big paycheck, preferring to work for the Children’s Defense Fund instead. Perhaps her most enduring achievement came during her time as First Lady when she shepherded the Children’s Health Insurance Program through Congress. The popular law provides health insurance coverage for more than eight million children nationwide.
3. Sandra Day O’Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor holds the distinction of shattering the highest glass ceiling in American jurisprudence as the first ever female Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Regarded as a centrist Republican voice on the Court, O’Connor attended Stanford Law School, where she served on the Stanford Law Review with its editor-in-chief and future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whom she briefly dated during law school.
During her tenure on the Court, O’Connor became known as a “swing vote” on many prominent cases. As such, she was able to exert her influence in numerous landmark cases, including Casey v. Planned Parenthood and Bush v. Gore.
4. Sonya Sotomayor
As the first Supreme Court Justice of Hispanic descent, as well as the first Latina, appointed to the bench, Sonya Sotomayor has broken numerous barriers for women lawyers. Upon her graduation from Yale Law in 1979, she worked as an assistant district attorney in New York for four-and-a-half years before entering private practice in 1984.
Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H. W. Bush in 1991. Six years later, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Despite partisan political maneuvering in the Senate, she was finally confirmed in 1998. In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by David Souter. She was confirmed by a vote of 68-31 and has consistently served as one of the most liberal voices on the Court.
5. Elizabeth Warren
A popular figure among populists, Elizabeth Warren has served as the senior United State Senator from Massachusetts since 2013. Before assuming office, Warren was formerly a professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Harvard Law School. Her expertise in bankruptcy and commercial law made her a natural fit as a consumer protection advocate.
Despite being regularly cited as a possible contender for the U.S. Presidency, Warren has sidestepped speculation regarding her future plans. She remains a wildly popular figure in the Democratic Party, and in progressive circles in particular.
6. Michelle Obama
The second First Lady on this list chose a different path than Hillary Clinton but is in many ways no less influential as a public figure. A 1988 graduate of Harvard Law School, Michelle Obama also eschewed big law firms for more rewarding public service. Her civic involvement in the legal, non-profit, and medical communities meshed well with her husband’s political ascent, and she continued to use her unique voice to further her role as an advocate.
Despite never holding public office herself, Michelle Obama has emerged as an influential figure in American society. Her public-speaking abilities and the well-earned perception of being grounded despite living in the rarified air of the White House have made her a highly-respected role model for young women nationwide.
7. Judith Sheindlin
More popularly known by her television moniker, Judge Judy Sheindlin revitalized the genre of courtroom programming with her acerbic, no-nonsense tone coupled with a realistic portrayal of legal proceedings. Since the premiere of Judge Judy in 1996, the show has surpassed all other similar shows except for The People’s Court and Divorce Court.
Widely credited with the popularization of the “personality-driven” judge, Sheindlin has cashed in on her success by earning an estimated $47 million per year. Even more impressive is the fact that her show only requires fifty-two workdays per year!
8. Janet Napolitano
Another woman with a massively impressive resume, Janet Napolitano may be the most accomplished woman in politics that most people have never heard about. She was the first woman attorney general for the state of Arizona before being elected Governor of Arizona from 2003 to 2009. Napolitano was then nominated by President Barack Obama to assume the post of Secretary of Homeland Security, where she served from 2009 to 2013. After leaving the Department of Homeland Security in 2013, she became the President of the University of California and is widely viewed as someone capable of mounting a bid for the White House at some point.
9. Janet Reno
The first female United States Attorney General and the second longest tenured person to hold the position, Janet Reno was a pioneer for women in the legal profession. Moving into government service after a career in the private sector, Reno was elected Attorney General of Florida a whopping five times before being nominated by President Bill Clinton for the prestigious job as U.S. Attorney General in 1993.
Reno also enjoyed significant pop culture fame, largely stemming from Will Farrell’s over-the-top impression of her on Saturday Night Live. The recurring sketch “Janet Reno’s Dance Party” was a fan favorite through the mid to late 1990’s, with Reno herself appearing at the end of the Clinton Administration.
10. Gloria Allred
A well-known champion for women’s rights both in and out of the courtroom, Gloria Allred is one of the most influential and prominent women in the legal profession today. In her four decades in practice, she has represented a vast array of clients in sexual harassment, wrongful termination, women’s rights, and employment discrimination cases. A master of the press conference, Allred’s clients include individuals who have filed high-profile suits against celebrities, including Tommy Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Esai Morales, Herman Cain, Anthony Weiner, David Boreanaz, Scott Lee Cohen, and Sacha Baron Cohen.
11. Ada Kepley
In 1870, Ada Kepley became the first woman in the United States to graduate from law school. However, when she applied for a license, she was informed that Illinois law prohibited women from practicing law. By the time the law was finally overturned, Kepley had diverted her energies to the support of social reforms, particularly the temperance movement. She became a fiery opponent of alcohol use, utilizing her skills and talents to rise to a position of national prominence in the temperance movement. She was a writer and published anti-alcohol newspapers that went so far as to name men who frequented saloons.
After her husband died in 1906, Kepley fell upon hard financial times. After numerous moves and downsizings, Ada Kepley died in 1925, a poverty-stricken charity case.
12. Myra Bradwell
Born in 1831, Myra Bradwell was a publisher and political activist who tried to become the first woman admitted to the Illinois bar. She was denied admission by the Illinois Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite the roadblocks she encountered from the legal establishment, Bradwell became an influential voice in changing laws limiting the rights of women to own property and a myriad of other social concerns. The Illinois Supreme Court finally granted her law license in Illinois in 1890; the United States Supreme Court followed suit two years later, shortly before Bradwell’s death from cancer.
13. Kellyanne Conway
It may seem counterintuitive for the woman who coined the phrase “alternative facts” to make this list, but there is no denying that Kellyanne Conway is an accomplished, powerful woman. Taking the reins as campaign manager of Donald Trump’s then-flailing presidential bid, Conway proceeded to accomplish what most political observer considered to be unimaginable by orchestrating Trump’s unlikely and historic path to the presidency. Conway remains highly influential in the Trump Administration as Counselor to the President.
The thirteen accomplished legal professionals listed above represent a wide array of backgrounds, practice areas, political stances, and controversies. However, regardless of their unique identifiers-or, more appropriately, because of them, these women have revolutionized the legal profession. The extraordinary challenges these women have faced, both outright and implicit, in their efforts to shatter the glass ceiling have been rivaled only by their capabilities. They, along with the countless unlisted women whose contributions paved the way for generations to come, serve as shining examples of the tenacity, endurance, and professional prowess exhibited by women in law for decades.
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