“A diverse judiciary enhances public confidence and benefits the judiciary itself.”
— Stephanie K. Bowman, magistrate judge for Southern District of Ohio
“Whether or not we establish freedom rests with ourselves.”
— Florence Ellenwood Allen
Florence Allen was no stranger to higher education. Her father, Clarence Allen, was a professor at Western Reserve University in Cleveland (now Case Western) and tutored young Florence in the many subjects considered the height of learning in the late Victorian era: classical languages, music and philosophy. A talented musician and poet, her parents sent her to Europe to further her study as a pianist.
It was not on the keyboard that Florence’s fingers would make their first mark, but rather in print, as a magazine writer and then as music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But this was the heyday of women’s suffrage and that noble cause soon called to Florence Allen.
She re-enrolled at Western Reserve and quickly earned a master’s degree in Political Science, but her desire to become a lawyer forced her to leave Ohio — Western Reserve’s law school flatly refused to admit women at that time. She earned her law degree from New York University (with honors) and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1914.
Her rise from there was rapid — routinely attributed to her intelligence, hard work, and intense sense of fairness — and saw her achieve a series of firsts. She was the first female assistant county prosecutor in the United States (1919), the first woman elected to a judicial office in Ohio (1920), the first female state supreme court justice in America (1922), and the first female appointed to a United States District Court of Appeals (1934), a position she held for 25 years.
The legal scene has changed drastically since Western Reserve refused Florence Allen admission in 1909. According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, women now make up 38% of the legal workforce in America and exactly 50% of law school students. That trend has carried over into the judiciary as well. There are now more than 250 female federal court judges in the United States and more than 6,000 female judges in state courts, though that latter number accounts for only 34% of state court judgeships.
Again, Ohio leads the way as 31% of Ohio’s active judges are female, an increase of 6% in the past five years, and we are one of only nine states in which the highest appellate court has a female majority. Five of Ohio’s 12 appellate court districts have female majorities and 29 of 67 appellate court judges in Ohio are women. The 9th District Court in Akron was, until recently, presided over by an entirely female bench.
A nerve injury put an end to Florence Allen’s career as a concert pianist, but that nerve injury opened the door to one of the most inspiring and ground-breaking legal careers in American History. A career that we rightly celebrate now, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. He has written a weekly column on law and history for the Gazette since 2005.