While activists and leaders of social movements create conversations and awareness, it’s the work of politicians, lawyers and judges that reinforces those efforts in courts of law.
But it’s still largely a male-dominated field. Women go to law school at almost the same rate as men, yet they make up only 34% of those who practice professionally.
“There are still challenges in the classroom, where men tend to be more confident and involved because of the social climate,” Devon Porter, a recent Yale Law graduate, tells Mashable.
Despite these challenges, there are many women who have broken barriers and use their political power to effect social change. From the local to the federal level, the work of women in law has been invaluable in the promotion of social justice.
As we come to the end of Women’s History Month in the U.S., the theme of which this year is “honoring women in public service and government,” we’ve rounded up 11 legal trailblazers who just happen to be women.
From defending the rights of the vulnerable to carving out a space for more women to enter the field, these women are leading the way.
Mosby is the State’s Attorney in Baltimore City, Maryland. At only 35 years old, she’s the youngest chief prosecutor in any major U.S. city. Only four months into this position, she led the case against the officers accused in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.
Mosby comes from a long line of law enforcement — both of her parents, her uncles and her grandfather were all police officers. Growing up in this environment, she often witnessed the faults in American policing. She said that through their actions, she “learned about the importance of taking responsibility for the choices and mistakes that we make.”
Resnik is the Arthur Liman Professor of Law at Yale. In addition to teaching, Resnik authored several legal books, including the critically acclaimed Representing Justice.
Most recently, Resnik was recognized for the Time-in-Cell report she worked on with Johanna Kalb and Sarah Baumgartel. This report on prolonged isolation of people in jails, she tells Mashable, is the first of its kind in over a decade. President Barack Obama even cited it in his opinion piece on solitary confinement.
“There’s a lot to fix, but a lot of people seem to want to do the fixing.”
Although grateful of Obama’s acknowledgment, Resnik is aware that large-scale change “will require a great deal of work and commitment that goes beyond the fiscal impact but understands the harm in isolating people,” she says.
While looking forward to change in U.S. incarceration, Resnik reflects on the strides made for women in law and the workforce in general.
“I can remember being one of two or three women on the faculty, but now we make up about one-fourth. Even the very idea that sexual harassment is impermissible is a tremendous change. It used to be accepted as something expected to happen as a woman in the workplace,” she says.
Resnik’s work as a professor of law is part of her belief that social change is an “intergenerational project.” In order for laws and policies to change, she believes that people of all genders and races must want to see them change.
“There’s a lot to fix, but a lot of people seem to want to do the fixing,” she says.
Gualtieri is the managing attorney at the Support Center for Child Advocates in Pennsylvania. This Philadelphia-based organization defends the rights of neglected and abused children with a holistic approach. In her 20 years of experience in child advocacy, Gualtieri tells Mashable, she has learned that “each client benefits most when both an attorney and social worker work together with them.”
This approach, she says, is the result of previously working in social work for eight years. She believes that in these cases of child neglect and abuse there are too many factors for the law to handle alone, “including familial drug use, mental health and poverty.”
Ginsburg, along with Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (below) are the three current women on the Supreme Court. Although they are still the minority among six men, these women have had a great impact on the lives of Americans, especially other women, during their careers in law. All of them were essential in upholding the Affordable Care Act in 2015, and ruling same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional.
Ginsburg joined the Supreme Court in 1993 after a long career of advocating for women’s rights. She started studying law at Harvard University while still raising her first child. Although she was in a male-dominant environment, Ginsburg excelled academically and was the first woman to join the Harvard Law Review.
In the 1970s, she served as director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, arguing six cases in front of the Supreme Court. Before serving on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for 13 years.
Sotomayor became the first Latina justice in the Supreme Court in August 2009 after serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals (also the first Latina) for 10 years. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents and raised in housing projects, Sotomayor’s story is one of discipline and commitment to success.
She graduated from Yale Law School and immediately began prosecuting cases as the assistant district attorney of Manhattan in 1979. Sotomayor has been known for her ability to see real-life implications of the law, even invoking her own family experiences.
Kagan joined the Supreme Court in 2010 after serving as the first female solicitor general of the U.S. for one year. She knew she wanted to be a judge ever since a an early age, and dressed accordingly for her high school yearbook photo.
Kagan’s career has been characterized by her confidence in giving opinions, even if it meant conflict. Although she had no prior experience as a judge, Kagan worked as a clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall during his time in the Court — a relationship filled with respect, but often laden with disagreements on the law.
In 2003, she became the first female dean of Harvard Law School, where she prohibited military recruiters on campus because of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Lynch currently serves as Attorney General of the United States. Nominated by President Barack Obama in November 2014, it took nearly five months for her to be sworn in — longer than any nominee in the past 30 years.
Her dedication to social justice has been evident since her time working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York City during the 1990s. During her time there, Lynch prosecuted cases of civil rights, public corruption and violent crime. One of her most notable cases was the prosecution of the officers responsible for beating and sexually assaulting Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
During her time as Attorney General, Lynch has indicted FIFA on 47 counts of money laundering and racketeering, and announced federal marriage benefits for same-sex spouses.
Dominguez is an immigration lawyer based in Studio City, California. She immigrated to America when she was 14 years old with plans to become a lawyer. Before she could achieve this goal, however, Dominguez faced many of the same challenges of those that she represents today — becoming a citizen, and securing her rights as an immigrant.
Fifteen years after coming to the U.S., she enrolled in community college and began her journey toward a law degree.
Today, Dominguez is well-known both locally and internationally for her dedication to defending the rights of immigrants to the U.S., and educating her community about their legal rights.
Known as angel de la justicia (the “angel of justice”) in her community, she received the name after helping to release an innocent woman from jail after serving 20 years. Aware of the privilege associated with even hiring an attorney, Dominguez currently uses a YouTube channel to provide information to those she cannot represent directly.
Allred has been fighting for women’s rights for nearly 40 years. In addition to handling more women’s rights cases than anyone else in the nation, her firm also represents victims of discrimination based on race, age, physical ability and sexual orientation.
“It is my job to empower my client, and show them that they have the power to demand justice.”
“It is my job to empower my client, and show them that they have the power to demand justice,” Allred tells Mashable.
In addition to being a woman in law, Allred is a proud feminist, which has had a large impact on her experiences. As an agent of change, Allred says she is often under attack “by those who would like to maintain the status quo and not change their infliction of injustice on women.”
Allred’s legacy of fighting for women’s rights also continues through her daughter and granddaughter, who are also feminist lawyers. While she has seen improvements in the experiences of younger women in law, Allred tells Mashable there haven’t been enough.
In addition to equal representation, she also believes women in law should be more involved in working toward social justice.
“We need more women lawyers taking women’s rights cases to help those who have not been as fortunate as we have been to become lawyers,” she says.
Kimpel is the managing Partner of the Sanford, Heiser, Kimpel, LLP D.C Office. For her work in cases of anti-discrimination and wage laws, Kimpel has been named one of the most accomplished female attorneys and listed among the “D.C. 40 under 40” by the National Law Journal. She has dedicated time to cases that fight against the still-existing glass ceilings.
Kimpel taught through Teach for America before deciding to go to law school, driven by a passion for social justice. One of her most prominent cases was challenging the constitutionality of the four-decade-long solitary confinement of the Angola 3. Albert Woodfox, the last of the three, was freed in February 2016.
Kimpel also serves as lead counsel for Columbia Professor Enrichetta Ravina in her sexual harassment suit against the university.
Clooney has made a name for herself as an attorney of international law and human rights. Among her many high-profile cases was Prosecutor v Mohamed Fahmy, in which she represented an Al Jazeera journalist who was detained in Egypt after an unfair trial.
In addition to representing individuals, Clooney has been an adviser on panels for the United Nations, UK Attorney General and International Bar Association Human Rights Institute. Clooney is admitted to both the London and New York bar, and is currently a visiting professor at Columbia University Law School.
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SaVonne Anderson is a New Media & Digital Design student at Fordham University. She was a Social Good editorial intern with interests in race and feminism. Her passions include food, travel, and all things Beyoncé. Follow SaVonne on Twitter and Instagram.