Clara Shortridge Fultz, Pioneer in California Law

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, lets take a look at a woman who made a huge impact on the legal profession. 

Clara Shortridge Fultz is a woman who had a tremendous impact on legal history in California. She was the first woman licensed to practice law in the western US, the first woman admitted to law school in California, created the public defender program, was the first woman to serve on the state board of corrections and as an assistant district attorney, and a gubernatorial candidate. This was on top of a lifetime of work with the women’s suffrage movement and with very little formal education.

Shortridge Foltz was born in rural Indiana in 1849 and eloped at the age of 15 after having attended school for only three years. She and her husband crossed the United States several times as he sought steady work, finally ending their journey together in San Jose, CA where he abandoned her while she was pregnant with their fifth child. Shortridge Foltz had already been volunteering with the campaign for women’s voting rights, so she began to earn money as a paid speaker advocating for women’s suffrage. She brought her children with her to these events and to the office of a local attorney where she began interning in hopes of becoming a lawyer. It was there she learned that California law restricted the bar exam to white males.

Not easily daunted, Shortridge Fultz authored and campaigned for a bill to replace the words “white male citizen” with “any citizen or person” in the California Civil Code of Procedure. After much controversy, the bill passed in 1878, opening the legal profession in California to women and persons of color. She passed the bar exam that year and began working as an attorney, dealing with divorce, probate, and criminal defense cases.  

As her law practice continued to grow, Shortridge Fultz felt uncomfortable about her lack of formal education so when the University of California opened a law school, she was one of two women who applied. After being denied solely based on their sex, the women authored an amendment to the California State Constitution which eventually passed and benefitted all women seeking professional independence by decreeing “No person shall, on the basis of sex, be disqualified from entering upon or pursuing any lawful business, vocation, or profession.”

After studying for two years, she returned full time to her law practice and activism. Her work in criminal defense led her to advocate for the humane treatment of prisoners and for the implementation of a parole system. She was responsible for many pieces of penal legislation still in effect today. Shortridge Fultz designed the public defender program where attorneys would be paid directly by the government, thus allowing for more balanced representation at trial. She travelled the country in support of this new idea and was instrumental in its adoption in 32 states.

In 1911, women’s suffrage was finally passed in the state of California, based on another amendment to the California State Constitution authored by Shortridge Fultz. Although it came after decades of campaigning, California was the 6th state in the union to allow women the vote and did so nine years before women gained the vote nationwide.

Shortridge Foltz remained active in her later years, relocating to southern California where she became the first female assistant district attorney in Los Angeles. Throughout her life, she remained a great supporter of women’s and prisoners’ rights and mentored many women in the legal profession. At the age of 81, Fultz unsuccessfully ran for governor on a women’s rights platform. This would be her last public act before passing away with her children by her side.

The information I gathered about Clara Shortridge Fultz was gained through articles found on HeinOnline, the world’s largest digital legal research collection which RCLL staff can help you to access at any of our locations or from your office or home.

Written by: Laura 

Laura Whyte

By Laura Whyte

March 21, 2023

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