top of page
  • Writer's picturemail

A Country at a Time: The History of Women in the Legal Profession

It has been quite a journey to get where we, ladies, are today. Females in the legal profession didn’t always have it as “easy” as we have it these days. While it is true that there is still a long way to go in this journey towards gender equality in the legal profession, we should certainly thank the many women before us for overcoming many obstacles and opening so many doors.

After much thought and discussion, it seemed a good idea to take a moment to honor those pioneers who fought for gender equality and write this article. Truth be told, it was not easy to complete this research but it was fun for us to take a look through the history of these females in a profession that even today is considered male dominated in many jurisdictions.

It was not until the late 20th century before the law became a profession with a substantial number of women. From Argentina to South Africa, from Hungary to China, from India to Brazil, all these women had a few things in common: passion for their profession, strength to pursue their dreams and the discipline and courage not to give up. So here they are some of our favorite pioneers who redefine the gender roles in law.

ARGENTINA: Maria Angélica Barredas graduated from the facultad de Ciencias Jurídicas y Sociales de la Universidad Nacional de la Plata in 1909 swearing as an attorney the following May at the same place where members of the primera junta did years before. She is considered the first woman admitted to practice law in Argentina in 1910. Margarita Argúas is the first woman to be appointed judge of the Supreme Court in Argentina in 1970. Today, Elena Highton de Nolasco is the only woman member of the seven- member Supreme Court, after the death in 2014of Carmen Argibay, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court by a democratic government in Argentina.

BRAZIL: Myrthes Gomes de Campos was the first woman to graduate from law school in Brazil in 1898, however, it was not until 1906 that she was admitted to the Institute of Brazilian Lawyers (Instituto dos Advogados do Brasil) and authorized to start practicing law. In 1954 Thereza Grisólia Tang took and passed the exam becoming the substitute judge of the 12th circuit of the state of Santa Catarina and the first woman to become judge in the country.

Elena Caffarena Morice (Chile)

CHILE: An attorney, a jurist and Chilean politician, Elena Caffarena Morice is considered by contemporary historians and humanists, one of the most important 20th century public figures in Chile.Born in Iquique to Ana Morice and Blas Caffarena, an Italian immigrant, she devoted much of her life to the struggle for women’s emancipation. Caffarena and Olga Poblete were the founders of “Movimiento Pro-Emancipacion de las Mujeres de Chile” in 1938.

MEXICO: María Asunción Sandoval de Zarco was the first woman to graduate from law school in Mexico in 1898 and Luz María Perdomo Juvera was the first female federal judge appointed in 1974.

Clara Brett Martin (Canada)

CANADA: According to the Ontario Bar Association, Clara Brett Martin was the first woman lawyer in Canada. Born of Abram and Elizabeth Martin, a well-to-do Anglican-Irish family, she opened the way for women to become lawyers in Canada by being the first in the British Empire in 1897. Mary Ann Shadd Cary was an American Canadian anti- slavery activist, journalist, publisher, teacher and lawyer. She was the first black woman publisher in North America and the first woman publisher in Canada in 1852.

UNITED STATES: Arabella (Babb) Mansfield was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1869. 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. 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 firstwoman in the United States appointed to a judicial position. The western states of the U.S. accepted some of the very earliest women lawyers, often with little formal record-keeping, while bar associations and law schools of the eastern states kept women out longer.

Liang Shin (China)

CHINA: According to the history of the legal profession in the early years of the PRC, women have never been excluded from law schools, legal practice, or judgeship, however, the legal profession was not formally established until 1979- 1980. In fact, there were women law graduates and lawyers even prior to the founding of the PRC in 1949. Ms. Liang Shi was China’s first Minister of Justice of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1959 in addition to being a famous lawyer and social activist. She was born in Changzhou, Jiangsu in 1900 and was educated in Shanghai where she became a lawyer.

JAPAN: Meiji University became the first school to admit female students to study law in 1929. Masako Nakata, who later became the director of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations; Yoshiko San fuchi, 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.

THAILAND: 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).

EGYPT: Naima Ilyas al- Ayyubi was the first woman lawyer in Egypt to graduate with a law degree from Cairo University in 1933. The daughter of a Syrian Christian historian who had converted to Islam, postponed the career issue by going on for a Belgium doctorate after becoming the university’s first female law graduate in 1933. By 1940 the National Bar Association had five women lawyers by judgeships remained beyond their grasps. 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.

PAKISTAN: In 1994, Justice Majida Rizvi was appointed as 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.

ISRAEL: 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.

INDIA: Cornelia Sorabji, a Parsee, defended a murder charge in the Indian courts in 1896 but was denied to full legal credentials on a variety of technicalities all her life.

FRANCE: Sarmiza (o Sarmisa) Bilcescu (later Bilcescu-Alimănișteanu) appears to be the first woman to graduate from a French university with a law degree in 1884, though she was actually from Romania. She obtained her licentiate in 1887 and a doctorate in 1890. Upon her return to Romania, she was admitted to the bar becoming Europe’s first woman attorney. Olga Petit and Jeanne Chauvin are considered the first women to be admitted to the bar in France, who were respectively sworn in on December 6 and 19, 1900. It would not be until 1946 that women could become judges in France.

GERMANY: Since the early 1900s, women were admitted to universities in Germany and by 1913, there were 51 women among 9,003 students. Prior to the passage of the Law on the Admission of Women to the Offices and Professions of Justice on July 11, 1922 [Gesetz über die Zulassung der Frauen zu den Ämtern und Berufen der Rechtspflege], 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 in 1927, however, all judges were dismissed by the Nazi regime. In 1977, Gisela Niemeyer was the first woman to be appointed as a justice of the Federal Constitutional Court.

GREECE: 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.

ITALY: Lydia Poet had the qualifications by 1883 and was allowed to practice law in 1885 but Italian women were denied formal access to the legal profession until after the First World War.

UNITED KINGDOM: No women formally became English barristers or solicitors until 1921-1922 but Elizabeth Orme had all the credentials except the formal call and effectively practiced law from 1875. She 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 EvelineMacLaren and Josephine Gordon Stuart, who both obtained a bachelor of laws from the University of Edinburgh in1909. 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.

RUSSIA: Ekaterina Fleischitz 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.

NEW ZEALAND: Ethel Benjamin was called to the bar in 1897 but was largely isolated by her colleagues despite her acknowledged skills. She 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.

SOUTH AFRICA: 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.

To complete this project, we reviewed hundreds of bios of wonderful women but due to space limitation, we were forced to only include a few of our favorite ones. In only a few days, the entire world will celebrate “International Women’s Day” on Friday, March 8th, 2019.

At Noli IP Solutions, PC, we celebrate and thank all our women for making a difference in our daily operations. We are proud of our group, we are all from different backgrounds. We believe Diversity is essential to the success of our firm.

We are officially recognized and certified by the United States of America Small Business Administration as a WOSB (Women Owned Small Business) and we are happy to know that even if small, we are making a difference. Thank you to our clients, colleagues and friends for your support.

It you would be interested in obtaining more information about our firm and/or our practice areas, please send us an email at


bottom of page