When Claudia James Sullivan became an attorney in 1918, she still wasn’t allowed to vote.
Why? Because she was a woman. The United States Constitution did not allow women to vote in national elections. In some places across the country, women were allowed to vote in state and local elections, but not in South Carolina.
So, it was no surprise when Sullivan tried to enroll in law school at the University of South Carolina and the old men in charge turned her down. After all, state law prohibited women from practicing law, so what was the point?
For Sullivan, the point was to put a brilliant mind to good use – and to change the law.
Taking on The Man (Literally)
She walked down to the State House and persuaded a state lawmaker to sponsor a bill that would allow women to practice law, undermining USC’s argument for not admitting her. She got into law school.
She wasn’t the first woman to attend law school in SC, but she did become the first to finish law school at USC in 1918.
To put Sullivan’s courage and the magnitude of what she accomplished into perspective, consider this:
- Another two years would pass before she and other American women gained the right to vote in national elections;
- Another three years would pass before women were allowed to vote in state elections in SC; and
- Women were not allowed to serve on SC juries for another half a century.
Sullivan Opens the Door
Thanks to Sullivan’s efforts, SC women immediately started completing law school and joining the SC Bar in greater numbers. Just five years after Sullivan became an attorney, the state’s first women-only law firm was formed in Greenville.
More women in the legal profession soon led to other changes – in 1925, the General Assembly made its first moves toward emancipating married women, giving them the right to file a lawsuit and to be sued. Just over a decade later, in 1938, the state Supreme Court took it a step further, ruling that a married woman is a separate legal entity from her husband.
Despite this … enlightened … decision, the SC Supreme Court would remain a men-only club for another 50 years, until Jean Hoefer Toal was elected in 1988. Toal went on to lead the court as chief justice from 2000 until 2015.
And now, Sherri Lydon is the highest ranking federal prosecutor in the state. When she became the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina last month, Lydon became the first woman to be appointed to the post by a president.
These days, it’s almost unimaginable that someone would be denied the right to practice law, serve as a judge, or lead the state Supreme Court just because of their gender, and female attorneys still put up with a lot from male attorneys and judges. But, let’s take a minute to remember the women like Claudia James Sullivan who blazed the trail, took huge risks, and opened the door.
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