According to the Iowa Department of Human Rights, the first American woman attorney was Arabella Mansfield. Mansfield passed the Iowa bar examination in 1869. [1] Although she never practiced law, she has been credited as the first female lawyer in the United States. There is, however, some controversy as to who the first female lawyer in Texas was. Most publications credit Hortense Sparks Malsch Ward as the first Texas lawyer admitted to the bar. [2] But was she?

Ward passed the Texas bar in 1910. Although Ward never appeared in court, she and her second husband, William Henry Ward, setup the law firm Ward & Ward in Houston. [3] The State Bar of Texas credits Ward as “the first woman admitted to the State Bar of Texas.” [4]

However, the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) gives Ward credit for becoming “one of the first women admitted to the Texas State Bar” in 1910. [5] According to the El Paso Bar Association, the first woman lawyer in El Paso was Ethel Shirley Abbott. Although the El Paso bar article does not state the date that Abbott became a member of the El Paso bar, the article suggests that it was after she enrolled at Cumberland University in Tennessee in 1917. [6] However, both the El Paso bar and the Texas bar are wrong according to a newspaper article from 1902. The first woman to be admitted to the Texas bar did so in 1902. She did so in El Paso, Texas.

The First Woman To Be Admitted To The Texas Bar

In reading through newspapers for our research into the historical politics of El Paso, we came across a newspaper article in the El Paso Herald from May 20, 1902. According to the article, Edith W. Locke was the first woman in Texas to pass the Texas bar, although the newspaper article wrongly states that Locke “enjoys the distinction of being the first woman to be admitted to the bar in this country and perhaps the first in Texas.” [7] As readers noted above, Araballa Mansfield was the first woman admitted to the bar in the United States in 1869. And, although the newspaper mistakenly states that Locke was “perhaps the first in Texas,” the facts show that she, in fact, was the first woman lawyer in Texas and the first in El Paso.

The Texas State Historical Association agrees as well. In their biography of Hortense Ward, the historical association credits Locke was having been accepted into the Texas bar in 1902, eight years before Ward passed the bar exam in 1910. [8]

According to the El Paso Herald, Edith Locke petitioned El Paso judge Walthall on May 20, 1902 for “a committee of attorneys to be appointed to examine her as to her legal attainments, as she was desirous of being admitted to the bar.” Judge Walthall appointed judges Jay Good, Uvalde Burns and J.N. Wilkerson as the committee” to examine Locke’s legal knowledge. According to the newspaper account, Locke “was ready with clear, clean cut answers on every principal of law.” The newspaper report goes to report that Locke “was granted a license” after the examination. [9]

The newspaper article states that Locke, the daughter of El Pasoan G.E. Wood, was “a lady of fine education and refinement, tall, handsome, and modest in manner.” Locke, according to the newspaper, returned to El Paso for her health and “took up the study of law merely as a pastime” as she recovered from an unknown health issue. The article added that Locke, had studied law in Iowa for two years before returning to El Paso. [10]

After passing the bar exam, Locke went to Chicago to be with her husband, Marion B. Locke, telling the reporter that she did not know whether she will “take up the practice of law or not.” [11]

According to author Sherrie McLeRoy, who wrote a book on Texas women achievements in 2015, Locke is “technically” the first Texas woman to pass the Texas bar, but because “she left speedily” the credit for the first woman Texas lawyer goes to Ward. [12] The State Bar of Texas Women chronicled the achievement of women lawyers in Texas. In a 2015 excerpt of the book, Rough Road to Justice, published by the Texas Bar, the story of Edith Locke is as reported by the 1902 newspaper article. However, the bar association book adds that, although Locke proved “that a woman was capable of learning the law,” that there “was not record of Edith Locke having eventually practiced law in Texas.” [13]

Curiously, although the Texas Bar credits Locke with passing the bar in 1902, it still credits Ward as the first woman to pass the Texas bar. Perhaps the reason is because Locke did not practice law in Texas, although Ward “never appeared in court,” either. Likewise, the El Paso Bar Association credits Ethel Abbott as the first El Paso lawyer, although Abbott did not pass the bar exam until sometime after 1917, over five years after Locke.

It is unclear why both the state and local bar do not give Locke credit for being both the first Texas and El Paso lawyer, but the historical record clearly states that it was Edith W. Locke who passed the bar exam in 1902, thus becoming the first Texas lawyer. She did so in El Paso.

Footnotes:

  1. Iowa Department of Human Rights, “1980 Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame Honoree: Arabella Mansfield (1846-1911).” Accessed on May 2, 2022. https://humanrights.iowa.gov/arabella-mansfield
  2. C. Sleeth, “First Women Lawyers In The United States,” Bar Association (July 18, 1997), 1.
  3. Sleeth, “First Women Lawyers,” 4.
  4. “Women’s History Month Profile: Hortense Sparks Ward,” The Texas Blog, State Bar of Texas, March 24, 2011, https://blog.texasbar.com/2011/03/articles/people/womens-history-month-profile-hortense-sparks-ward
  5. Janelle D. Scott, “Ward, Hortensia Sparks (1872-1944),” Texas State Historical Association, last modified February 10, 2017, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/ward-hortense-sparks
  6. Liz Rogers, “El Paso Women Lawyers, The Pioneers,” El Paso Bar Journal, The El Paso Bar Association (October/November 2008): 7.
  7. “A Woman Lawyer,” El Paso Herald, May 20, 1902, 1.
  8. Scott, “Ward, Hortensia Sparks.”
  9. “A Woman Lawyer,” 1.
  10. “A Woman Lawyer,” 1.
  11. “A Woman Lawyer,” 1.
  12. Sherrie S. McLeRoy, Texas Women First: Leading Ladies of Lone Star History (Arcadia Publishing, 2015).
  13. Betty Trapp Chapman, “Excerpts From Rough Road to Justice, The Journey of Women Lawyer In Texas,” Texas Bar Journal, The Texas Bar Association (December 2008): 894.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.