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Clara Shortridge Foltz: Opening Doors For Women To Become Notaries

Clara_Foltz-resized.jpgThey say necessity is the mother of invention, but in the case of Clara Shortridge Foltz, a mother’s necessity paved the way to many firsts for women — including becoming California’s first woman Notary — that have since molded our nation and our justice system.

Clara and innumerable determined women like her fought hard to break barriers and open doors for future generations, and it is these inspiring individuals who we honor during Women’s History Month.

Born in Indiana in 1849, Clara’s early adult life was akin to most women of the time. She married at 15, moved to California with her husband as he sought work, and took care of her husband, children, and home. It wasn’t until her womanizing spouse left her alone to care for five children did Clara step outside the confines of a woman’s place in the 19th century.

She didn’t just step, she leaped. And she broke down walls as she went.

Becoming A Trailblazer

The daughter of a lawyer and preacher, Clara was familiar with the practice of law. At the time, there was no law school in California, so beyond apprenticing in a law office and applying to the court, the requirements were minimal. One must have been a resident in the state for six months, be of high moral character, and be a “white male citizen.”

That law changed because of her. She authored the Woman Lawyer’s Bill, which changed the language from “white male citizen” to “any citizen or person,” clearing the path for future female attorneys.

And so, Clara became a lawyer in 1878. The very first female to practice law in the state of California. That was only the beginning. Her list of “first” accomplishments is lengthy and ambitious:

  • First woman to attend Hastings College of Law (an education she desired, even though she was already a practicing lawyer).
  • First female deputy district attorney in the United States.
  • First woman prosecutor to try a murder case.
  • First female clerk or the State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.
  • First woman appointed to the State Board of Corrections.
  • One of the original suffragettes to vote in 1911.
  • First female commissioned Notary Public in the state of California.

Championing Women’s Rights

Clara was an eloquent lecturer and prolific writer. She contributed articles to publications such as New Northwest and the San Jose Mercury. She also and founded and wrote for the San Diego Daily Bee and The New American Woman magazine.

She remained a staunch advocate for women’s rights and for social reform that has stretched forward even to today. She fought for state and constitutional changes guaranteeing access to jobs and education for women. The birth of our public defender system is attributed to Clara, who believed the concept of innocent until proven guilty could not be properly enforced without adequate legal counsel.

Never one to slow down, at the age of 81 Clara ran for governor of California; perhaps one of the few goals she failed to accomplish when she lost the election.

When speaking of her accomplishments, Clara said, “Everything in retrospect seems weird, phantasmal and unreal. I peer back across the misty years into the era of prejudice and limitations, when a woman lawyer was a joke… but the story of my triumphs will eventually disclose that though the battle has been long and hard-fought it was worth while.”

 

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