The history of women in the law predates the women’s suffrage movement. This history of women lawyers is replete with women fighting for the right to freely practice law. Every state has its own set of women legal pioneers and trailblazers. These women laid the foundation for all female lawyers to become members of their state bars and practice law with and against their male counterpart.
The first woman to be admitted to any law school and to become a lawyer in the United States was Iowa’s Arabella Mansfield in 1869. Mansfield was admitted, in spite of a state law that allowed only white males to take the bar. Later that year, the law in Iowa was changed to allow women admittance. Closer to home, in 1898, Louise Rebecca Pinnell became the first woman admitted to the Florida Bar.
In 1981, Leah Simms became the first African American woman to become a judge in the State of Florida. Judge Simms was of particular significance to me, since in the Spring of 1982, my 6th grade class went on a field trip to Miami-Dade County Courthouse. We visited Judge Simms’ courtroom, where she was introduced to us as the first Black female County Court judge in Florida. Prior to that visit, I was certain I wanted to be a lawyer. I had been told that I could be a lawyer if I worked hard but, as a first generation African American girl, whose parents were Jamaican immigrants who had not completed high school and whose four (4) older brothers had, at best, obtained a GED, I had not believed it until that moment. I had never met, or known of, a Black female lawyer, much less a Black female judge. She became my inspiration. Her very existence made me believe I could really be a lawyer and maybe even a judge.
In 1995, I was admitted to the Florida Bar and have just recently submitted my application to the Judicial Nominating Commission to be considered for an appointment to the Bench. My legal career and recent submission to the Commission was, in no small part, directly attributable to Judge Simms. She was a breathing example of what I could become.
Those of us who are brave enough or courageous enough or inspired enough or simply driven enough to be the first to do anything positive in our society must be honored and must never be forgotten. The first women in the law deserve a special place in our history books. It is unquestionable that they have inspired a multitude of women to pursue a legal career in the same way that Judge Simms inspired me.