Barbara Babcock


On her book Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz

Cover Interview of January 25, 2011

In a nutshell

Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz is primarily a biography of an important figure in American legal history.  Very famous in the late nineteenth century, she has been largely forgotten until recently.  Most of the stories I relate in the book of cases, causes, and campaigns, have not been told before.

Foltz’s life was eventful and interesting—arguing to all-male juries, stumping in political campaigns, working for woman suffrage and criminal justice reforms.  She attained a kind of celebrity that few people of either sex enjoyed, partly because of the human interest of her situation.  Foltz was a single mother of five young children when she burst upon the political and legal scene in California by waging a great battle to learn the law and join the Bar.

Her story casts new light on the post-civil war period in the United States.  Foltz was there in 1879 when California averted class and race war by framing a new constitution; she participated in the Southern California land boom in the eighties, and oil boom at the turn of the century.  In her radical political phase, she joined a socialist-utopian movement, and ran for city attorney of San Francisco on the ticket of the People’s Party.  Many other forgotten characters, male allies and movement women, are revealed in the search for Clara Foltz.

The book is also about Foltz’s thought.  Today we would call Foltz a “public intellectual.”  She commented on the criminal justice system, and campaigned for a public defender.  She spoke on the subject on a platform with the nation’s most distinguished law professors and judges at the Chicago World’s Fair.  Her vision of that office and its necessity is still important.  She anticipated the Progressive era jurisprudence also in her campaign for parole, and her proposal for speeding up the rate of legal change to match the pace of technological innovation.