Clara Shortridge Foltz – The Portia of the Pacific

by Christen Sproule

September 2018

 Around the time that WLALA was founded, one hundred years ago, a woman lawyer was routinely and derogatorily referred to as a “Portia,” a character in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.  In that story, when Portia’s betrothed’s friend is arrested for his debts and put on trial, Portia bravely disguises herself as a man and (illegally) appears in court as his lawyer.  She stuns the court with her intellect and skills, winning the trial and saving her client from the death penalty.  In the play, Portia is permitted to enter the male realm as a lawyer only when she is masquerading as a man—essentially, when she pretends to be something she is not.  But, as a woman, Portia is submissive and obedient to both her father and her husband, as is proper.  At the turn of the century, society then disdainfully thought the same of a woman lawyer—as a Portia, she was overstepping her place and assuming a role that was not meant for her.   

            In 1878, despite these societal pressures, California passed the Woman Lawyer’s Bill (drafted by Clara Shortridge Foltz), removing the bar from women joining the Bar.  Just months later, Foltz became the first woman admitted in California.  Soon after, she filed, and eventually won, a lawsuit seeking entrance into Hastings College in San Francisco.  In 1910, she then became the first woman to prosecute a murder case as the country’s first female deputy district attorney.  Despite her career as a prosecutor, or, perhaps because of it, she conceived of the idea of the public defender; the “Foltz Defender Bill” was enacted in 1921 in California.  Not surprisingly, Foltz fought for women’s suffrage, and she became one of the few original suffragists who lived to cast a vote.  And, inspirationally, she did all of this as the single mother of five children.  For all her efforts, she was labeled the “Portia of the Pacific.” 

            Yes, Foltz was a Portia, but not in the way it was meant at the time.  Rather, she was a brave, brilliant woman who defiantly ignored the unfair and oppressive limits imposed upon women by a sexist society.  In a time when the boundaries of those limits have moved, but have not disappeared, female lawyers today should embrace the spirit of Portia—defiance in the face of derision—fierceness in the face of unfairness.  Just as Portia and Foltz did, we should not be deterred when we are turned away at the gates solely because of who we are.  We should instead see beyond those obstacles and courageously conceive of new ways to surmount them.  But unlike Portia, we should not pretend to be men.  True change will come only when we are proudly ourselves—fierce, fearless, and female.