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Women's History Month: 5 Powerful Women Who Paved the Way for Others A rising number of prolific women continue to pave the way for others as these five women did in the legal field.

By Kelly Hyman

Key Takeaways

  • We celebrate these notable women who have made history and the peers and colleagues we face in everyday life.
  • It is a time to lift women's contributions, big and small, to push forward and create enough space for future generations.
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March is Women's History Month, which, according to the official website, is about "commemorating and encouraging the study, observance, and celebration of the vital role of women in American history." While this deserves attention year-round, it still calls for a highlighted celebration.

A rising number of prolific women continue to pave the way for others, including those in the legal field. By setting a precedent cemented in law, they've changed the trajectory of cases for the future and left the door open for other life-changing actions and opportunities to take place.

Whether they were first in their profession or ruled on a case that changed history, here is a brief look at how women have emerged in the legal field, where they still face challenges and a few of the many women who have made their mark.

Evolution of female attorneys in the U.S.

Between 1950 and 1970, women made up less than 5% of attorneys in the U.S. This percentage began to slowly increase over the following decades, though it wasn't until 1991 that women attorneys reached the 20% mark. But, in 2022, the number of women attorneys was still at 38%.

The conversation regarding gender diversity has been a harrowing road for females to compete against their male counterparts for wage and partner equity and appointment to prestigious groups and positions. According to a 2019 ABA study, the following was reported:

  • 48% of women missed out on a desirable assignment compared to 11% of men
  • 54% of women were denied a salary increase or bonus compared to 4% of men
  • 75% of women experienced demeaning comments, stories, or jokes compared to 8% of men
  • 82% of women had been mistaken for a lower-level employee compared to 0% of men

These discrepancies make the perseverance of women in law even more admirable, as they've overcome setbacks hindering them from the beginning. And, as the world changes and more women are being admitted to the bar and finding their way to the top of their field, it's inspiring for others to follow suit.

Related: The Biggest Challenges Women Entrepreneurs Face

1. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is heralded for her fight for women's rights and gender equality. She is famously noted for saying, "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made." After attending Harvard Law School, she eventually transferred to Columbia Law School, graduating top of her class in 1959. Following graduation, she taught at Rutgers School of Law before becoming a legal partner with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in two gender equality cases, including Reed v. Reed in 1971.

Reed vs. Reed was a landmark decision that found the law's dissimilar treatment of men and women was unconstitutional, and discrimination would not be allowed. Ginsburg became the founding counsel of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project and was appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 1993.

2. Sonia Sotomayor

Nominated in 2009 to the Supreme Court by President Obama, Yale Law School graduate Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latinx and third woman to be appointed. For years before the appointment, she served as the Assistant District Attorney in the New York County District Attorney's Office before entering into private practice.

One of Sotomayor's most notable cases is Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee, Inc. This case involved a disagreement between Major League Baseball (MLB) teams and players over compensation for the loss of "free agent" players. Her ruling on the baseball salary cap in 1995 restored the terms of the previous labor agreement and ended the MLB strike by opening day for the 1994-1995 season.

Related: 3 Ways to Prevent Imposter Syndrome From Ruining Your Business

3. Ketanji Brown Jackson

A 1996 graduate of Harvard Law School, Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed as the first Black woman and first former federal public defender of the Supreme Court. Before the appointment, she served as a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Further, during her time as a commissioner for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, she was part of retroactively applying the 2020 Fair Sentencing Act, which allows those with extreme sentences for prior drug convictions to seek reduced sentences.

4. Charlotte E. Ray

In 1872, Charlotte E. Ray became the first Black female attorney in the U.S. She graduated from Howard University and was the first woman to be admitted to the District of Columbia bar. Though she faced inevitable challenges due to her race and gender, she argued a case in the D.C. Supreme Court in the case of Gadley v. Gadley three years after being admitted to the bar. Through her perseverance, she set a precedent for other female lawyers in other states to be admitted to their respective bars.

Related: 5 TED Talks by Powerful Women Leaders That Inspire and Motivate

5. Anita Hill

Attorney and professor Anita Hill likely has the highest notoriety from her 1991 testimony. At the time, she spoke in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the sexual harassment she experienced from then-Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas.

In her testimony, she alleged inappropriate conversations and sexual advances by Thomas during her time as his legal advisor. As a result, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which solidified employee protection against workplace discrimination.

Kelly Hyman

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

TV legal analyst and Attorney

Kelly Hyman has been called "a modern day Erin Brockovich" by Forbes. Hyman has appeared numerous times on Law & Crime, Court TV and Fox@night. She is a TV legal analyst and democratic political commentator, and as an attorney, Hyman focuses on class actions and mass tort litigation.

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