Significance – By the late 19th century, universities, judges, legislatures, and lawyers were all taking a hand in defining who should be lawyers – and all could become either pathways or barriers to the ambitions of women.

Inscription – In 1887, Mary Lathrop came to Denver to recover from tuberculosis. She became the city’s first female attorney in 1896.

 Location – 39°44’38.2″N 104°59’17.9″W

Details – The Victorian era was a difficult time to be a woman – you were no longer cherished and not yet liberated. Mary Florence Lathrop pushed the boundaries for women with two interesting and successful careers. Initially as a newspaper and magazine reporter, then as a lawyer.

Born in 1865 to a Philadelphia Quaker family, it was established early-on that Lathrop was likely not to marry because of the split between branches of local sects of Quakers and the severe penalties for marrying out of meeting. Instead, Mary received an education.

Her first career was a reporter at the Philadelphia Press. She reported labor conditions in Pennsylvania fabric mills and campaigned for child labor laws. McClure magazine, a stylish illustrated monthly periodical of the day, sent Lathrop west to cover the gold mines, range wars, Indian disputes and a labor riot in Cripple Creek. She was then sent to San Francisco to write about attacks on Chinese laborers. Praised by the Chinese government, when was invited to visit the far East. She came down with pneumonia, which developed into tuberculosis.

Lathrop’s family relocated to Denver so the sunny Colorado climate could aid her recovery. Mary then found herself on a new career path – law.

Women were already making inroads in the legal profession. Arabella Mansfield passed the Iowa the bar in 1869. Granted, she had not been law school but rather had studied in her brother’s office for two years before taking the bar examination. More recently,  Esther Morris had been appointed as a justice of the peace in Wyoming Territory. Lathrop studied at University of Denver School of Law. She went back to Philadelphia to study probate law and returned in time for the Colorado bar examination. Lathrop passed the Colorado Bar in 1896 with a score that would stand as a record until 1941.

M. Lathrop, Esq. hung her shingle in Denver at the prestigious Equitable Building. The one-room office she leased in 1897 made her the first woman to open a law practice in Denver. Her office was different than those of the men. She offered rocking chairs, so clients and visitors felt more comfortable. Lathrop, herself, Although working in a man’s world, maintained her femininity. She was known to wear “a long-suited skirt with a full front of silk, high button shoes and a hat with bright flowers above the little curls across her forehead.” She often put on a lacy apron when she did her legal work.

As was expected, many male colleagues refused to admit a female attorney into their fraternity, often referring to her as “that damn woman.” One attorney even refused to try a case against her client.

But women liked Mary Lathrop, and she had plenty of business. An early case which helped establish her reputation was Clayton v. Hallett. One of Denver’s pioneers, a gentleman by the name of George W. Clayton, willed $2.5m to found a college for orphaned boys. The will was contested by a greedy heir. During the two-year trial, Lathrop researched a century’s worth of decisions and found her answers in documents relating to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. She won the case in front of the Colorado Supreme court in 1898 – the first woman to face that judicial body. To her merit, the case, Clayton v. Hallett established Colorado’s law of charitable requests.

The specialty of M. Lathrop, Esq. became probate, inheritance and real estate issues, with a healthy dose of law to benefit women and children. She faced ongoing opposition. The cause of women lawyers was not only about women. In the 19th century, the nature of professions was in flux. Professions had long been defined as the exclusive prerogative of gentlemen.  Universities, judges, legislatures, and lawyers were all taking a hand in defining who should be lawyers and the slow reinvention into something determined by learned skills, objective testing, and certified credentials – and all could become either pathways or barriers to the ambitions of women as well as men.

Women do well when careers are based on merit, so the new rules were in her favor. Attorney Lathrop reluctantly became the first female member of the Colorado Bar Association. They invited her to become a member in 1901, but she hesitated, as the bar associations and law schools of the eastern states were still keeping women out. She finally accepted in 1913, when she received a unanimous invitation.

Four years later, Lathrop was one of the two first female members of the American Bar Association. (She later became vice president.)

Women progressed in law. In 1928, President Coolidge nominated Genevieve Cline to for a seat on the U.S. Customs Court. She became the first woman appointed to a federal court.

Lathrop stayed focused on Denver. During World War II, she was known to take a dozen soldiers at a time to dinner at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, the guest list rose to a hundred soldiers.

After the end of the war, the Veterans of Foreign Wars presented Lahtrop with the Distinguished Citizenship medal for entertaining 14,000 GIs. That was one of many honors. She was the Business and Professional Women’s Woman of the Year, Denver’s First Lady of the Year and  received an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Denver, among others. She gave back, leaving bulk of her estate to establish a student loan fund at the University of Denver.

To give you an update on U.S. women and the law, in 2014, women made up 34% of the legal profession, but remain underrepresented in senior positions in all areas of the profession. In private practice law firms, women make up just 4% of managing partners in the 200 biggest law firms. Among Fortune 500 corporations, 21% of the general counsels were women,

Quiz Questions

Why was the Victorian era a difficult time for women?

Why was it difficult for women to become lawyers?

Who was the first woman to try a case before the Colorado Supreme Court?

What are some areas of business where women need more equality?

Why is important to establish a legacy of giving back?