Foltz, Clara (1849–1934)

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Foltz, Clara (1849–1934)

American political and social reformer who was the first woman admitted to the California bar. Born Clara Shortridge in Indiana, possibly in New Lisbon, Henry County, on July 16, 1849; died in Los Angeles, California, on September 2, 1934; second child and only daughter of five children of Elias Willets Shortridge (a druggist, minister, and lawyer) and Talitha Cumi (Harwood) Shortridge; attended Howe's Female Seminary, Iowa, 1840–43; briefly attended Hastings College of Law, San Francisco; married Jeremiah Richard Foltz (a businessman), on December 30, 1864 (widowed or divorced, 1877); children: two sons and three daughters.

A pioneering lawyer and the first woman to be admitted to the California bar, Clara Foltz was also a political and social reformer, particularly in the area of women's rights. Her hard-won career was combined with caring for five children, which, despite her feminism, she considered to be her primary responsibility in life. Foltz was admired for her wit, her charm and spirit, and her intelligent, elegant courtroom demeanor.

Born in New Lisbon, she grew up in Wayne County, Indiana, and Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where she attended Howe's Female Seminary for three years. She taught school until her marriage to businessman Jeremiah Foltz in December 1864. The couple lived for a short time in Portland, Oregon, then moved to San Jose, California. There Jeremiah ran a grocery store and sold real estate, and Clara gave birth to five children, wrote newspaper articles, and occasionally gave lectures on women's suffrage. After her husband's death in 1877 (by one account, the couple divorced), Foltz was left to provide for the children. With the help of her parents, who had followed her to San Jose in 1876, she began to read law with a local attorney and soon discovered that the California constitution admitted to the bar only "white male" citizens. Foltz drew up an amendment striking out these limitations and, aided by Laura de Force Gordon and other suffragists, pushed it through the California legislature, where it was passed in April 1878. In September of that year, Foltz was admitted to practice in the 20th District Court at San Jose. The following year, when she and Gordon were denied admission to the state-supported Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, they each filed suit to force the college to accept women. Both women, acting as their own counsel, successfully argued their case through the 4th District Court and eventually the California Supreme Court. Foltz enrolled at Hastings but due to the demands of her growing law practice was only able to attend for a short time. On December 6, 1879, she and Gordon became the second and third women to be admitted to the bar of the state supreme court. Foltz also served as clerk of the state assembly's judiciary committee (1879–80), the first woman so appointed.

Foltz successfully practiced law for over 20 years but not without interruptions. For two years, beginning in 1887, she lived in San Diego, where she founded a daily newspaper, the San Diego Bee. After winning admittance to the New York bar in 1896, she briefly opened an office in New York City. Although she was primarily a divorce and probate lawyer, her growing business interests also led her into corporate law, and in 1905 she organized a women's department for her client the United Bank and Trust Company of San Francisco. That year, she also founded and published a trade magazine, Oil Fields and Furnaces (later merged into the National Oil Reporter).

From 1906, Foltz lived and worked in Los Angeles, where, in addition to her busy law practice, she continued to pursue interests in women's rights, social welfare, and politics. Having organized the Portia Law Club in San Francisco in 1893, she also helped found the Women Lawyers Club in 1918 and for several years conducted a law school for women in her Los Angeles office. An active suffragist, she was president of the California Woman Suffrage Association in the 1880s and, in 1884, ran for the office of presidential elector on the Equal Rights ballot headed by Belva Ann Lockwood . Foltz played an important role in the campaign that secured the vote for women in state elections in 1911. From 1916 to 1918, she published the feminist magazine New American Woman. She also championed legislation that allowed women to serve as the executors and administrators of estates and to hold commissions as notary publics.

Much of Foltz's social-welfare work centered on penal reform and the administration of justice. She was a leader in the movement to appoint public defenders for indigent defendants and worked for the segregation of adult and juvenile prisoners, as well as for modification of the parole system. In 1910, she was the first woman appointed to the State Board of Charities and Corrections, a post she held until 1912.

Foltz was active in both state and national politics, usually in conjunction with the Republican Party. In 1886, however, she left the party to support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Washington Bartlett, who, when elected, appointed her a trustee of the State Normal School. In Los Angeles, she was the first woman appointed deputy district attorney and served two terms. In 1921, she refused an appointment as assistant U.S. attorney general. In 1930, at age 81, Foltz entered the Republican primary as a candidate for governor, receiving a respectable 8,000 votes. Two years later, plans for a second run for governor were cut short by a heart attack. Clara Foltz died on September 2, 1934, and was buried in Hollywood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts