Women’s History Month Spotlight: The Changing Face of Justice: A Look at the First 100 Women Attorneys in North Carolina

March 13, 2023

In 2004, the North Carolina Bar Association published The Changing Face of Justice: A Look at the First 100 Women Attorneys in North Carolina. Women in the state first began acting as attorneys – representing other people in court – in the late 1600s. Researchers with the North Carolina Bar Association’s Committee on Women in the Profession found three women acting as attorneys in the late 1600s, none in the eighteenth century, and only one in the nineteenth. The other ninety-six span 1911-1940.

Each of the 100 women’s lives and involvement in the profession are detailed in a short essay. The book dives them into five general categories by period: the colonial frontier, the “lone pioneer” in the nineteenth century, the early twentieth century (1911-1920), the twenties, and the thirties. The foreword, introduction, and epilogue provide both historical context and context for the production of this work. It also includes a helpful list of all 100, timeline, and more information about the Committee on Women in the Profession. The bibliography is particularly helpful for further research.

The Changing Face of Justice depicts many fascinating women. In 1878, Tabitha Anne Holton became the first woman admitted to the North Carolina bar, and had to petition to the state supreme court in order to take the bar exam. According to contemporary reports, she answered every question on the bar correctly. She then went into practice with her brothers in Yadkinville. Susie Marshall Sharp was the first woman to be appointed to a North Carolina superior court, the first woman in the state to be elected to the state supreme court, and in 1974, became not only the first woman to be Chief Justice of that court, but also the first woman to be the chief justice of any state supreme court in the U.S. Ruth Whitehead Whaley was the first African-American woman to be admitted to the state’s bar in 1932, and she was also the second woman admitted to the New York state bar. Though a native of North Carolina, she went to law school and took the bar in New York and was admitted to practice in North Carolina by reciprocity. She mostly practiced in New York and was very involved in the contemporary anti-lynching movement.

Women’s participation in the practice of law has only grown over time, and many other resources exist to help with research. The Sesquicentennial History of the UNC Law School has a chapter on “Women at UNC and in the Practice of Law,” written by two UNC professors, Laura Gasaway and Judith W. Wegner. Volume Three of the Chronicle of Black Lawyers in North Carolina focuses on women. The North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers produced a film about the first three Black female attorneys in the state as well, which can be found in Wilson Library. Those are just starting places for exploring the history of women in the law in North Carolina; their history is long, rich, and ever-growing.