Excerpted From: Dolores S. Atencio, Luminarias: An Empirical Portrait of the First Generation of Latina Lawyers 1880-1980, 39 Chicana/o-Latina/o Law Review 1 (2023) (Footnotes) (Full Document)


DoloresSAtencioWho were the first Latina law graduates and lawyers in the United States? Until the publication of this Article, there was no empirical data on the first Latina law graduates who earned law degrees and became attorneys in the United States during the late Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries. The history of women entering the legal profession during this period, the obstacles they surmounted to become lawyers, and their progress is well-documented. A record of Latina attorneys during this same period, however, did not exist. This Study was undertaken to document those unrecorded, Las Olvidades (the forgotten ones), from 143 years ago to 2023 and bring them from obscurity to prominence.

This Article presents an original empirical portrait of the first Latina attorneys, less than 1,400, who earned law degrees from 1880-1980, affectionately called “Luminarias | Luminaries,” because they Illuminated the Way for others to follow. It is based on the findings of a five-year analysis of 167 American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law schools that graduated law students during the Study Period, utilizing a retrospective record review methodology. An overview of the Study findings is provided, including data on the graduation and licensure of Luminarias during the Study Period by (1) law schools, states, and regions; and (2) career choices of the Luminarias and milestones achieved in comparison to non-Latina attorneys. The Study findings are but one aspect of the Luminarias Project.

The Study Period was chosen for three reasons. First, the absence of empirical data on Luminarias during these decades and second, the historical importance of Luminarias. Third, this timeframe encapsulates the history of the “First Generation of American Women Attorneys” from 1860 to 1920, reflecting the period when women were denied legal admission to the bar in 1873, through the slow but gradual increase of female lawyers during the first part of the 20 century, to the Second Feminist Wave and exponential growth through the 1970s. Arabella Mansfield became the first woman attorney licensed in 1869 in Iowa. By 1880, there were 200 women lawyers, with most obtaining their law licenses through legal challenges. None were Latina. Thus, history dictated that the search for the first Latina attorneys should commence in 1880.

Throughout the research process, significant issues emerged necessitating their analysis and inclusion in this Article. Two are interrelated: the stark underrepresentation of Luminarias during the Study Period and up to the present time, and the fact that Latina lawyers are understudied. Their interrelatedness had, and has, a substantive impact on the admission, progress, and elevation of Latinas in the profession. One need only review the work of the ABA Commission on Women (discussed infra) to appreciate the connectivity and effect of research followed with vociferous advocacy.

The third issue concerns the complexity of self-identification: defining who is “Latina.” Used historically as an excuse to forego tracking Latino law school admissions, this issue had an unexpectant, literal impact on interpreting the data. Defining “who is Latina” is undoubtedly an imperfect, evolutionary and, therefore, challenging process. The complexity of and complications arising from defining Latina over a 100-year period involved grappling with history, nomenclature, and present-day controversy over ethnonyms eloquently examined and discussed by Latina/o Critical Theory scholars; sorting through regional and ethnic labels; assessing Latina by birth in a Spanish language country of origin; the intersection of race and ethnicity involving our Afro-Latina sisters; and the question of ethics arising from classifying these early women law graduates and lawyers. Confirming who is Latina through race and ethnicity, separate from verification of bar status, was exacerbated by official U.S. Census Bureau documentation recording most Latinas as white, necessitating research beyond government records to establish Latina ancestry. This process was further complicated by Luminarias who self-identified as Latina in the absence of Latino ancestral roots or by those with documented Latino ancestry but who self-identified otherwise. These issues all required resolution to bring forth the data in this Study.

Luminarias were, and Latinas remain, the most underrepresented attorney groups in the legal profession in relation to their total U.S. population. There are slightly over 1.3 million lawyers in the country. comprise 2.5% of the Latino lawyer population of 5.8%; both percentages vastly disproportionate to the total Latino U.S. population of nearly 19%. Fifty years ago, in 1970, women attorneys were 3% of the total lawyer community, which slowly but steadily increased to 38% in 2022. were not included in that growth. To determine why they comprise such a small fraction of the women lawyer community, and to both accurately trace and explain their trajectory in the legal profession, we must understand their beginning. Ultimately, this Study attempts to supply the connective tissue from past to present, and “shine an unforgiving light” on the grossly disproportionate and unacceptable number of Latina attorneys in the country. It is my hope that the Luminarias Study will spark deeper scrutiny, awareness, and an awakening that results in affirmative change on behalf of Latina attorneys.

[. . .]

Latinas continue to be underrepresented and undercounted in the legal profession as they were 143 years ago. Notwithstanding, the Study reveals the choices made by Luminarias that proved instructive, in the literal sense of the word. Their imagination, tenacity, perseverance, intelligence, and political acuity composed the formula upon which their success was built. That formula-- altered and improved with each mistake, cases lost and won, new jobs and appointments--shattered the multi-tiered glass ceiling, enabling Luminarias to become the first Latina practitioner in a city and state; the first civil rights advocate, corporate counsel, law partner and law professor, judge, and ultimately, the first U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Luminarias ensured that in becoming the first, they were not the last as the Study revealed. It was the connectivity and commitment to, initially, family that extended to the slow but growing community of Latina lawyers which illuminated the way for others to follow. Indeed, Luminarias followed to the greatest extent first and foremost in the private sector, especially as solo practitioners. Imagine the chutzpah, or ganas, it took to set up shop as the sole Latina attorney in the state of Arizona in 1940, Estella Cota Robles (1940 J.D. University of Arizona).

Luminarias followed women lawyers into government practice in impressive numbers, given their limited pool, and honed their skills across a broad band of complex federal service, proving their capacity and stamina to handle the work. Perhaps it was government service coupled with rampant sex discrimination that motivated Luminarias to seek judicial appointments. Whatever the motivation, the number of Luminarias who became judges is impressive as is the diversity of the courts to which they were appointed. Lest there be any doubt, this legacy of success created the instructive connectivity to successive generations. The reverse result occurred in the legal academy. The exclusion of Luminarias from tenure-track faculty positions and deanships has left a current void in law schools that is deserving of national public attention and immediate redress. It is unfortunate this reality coincides with the increase of Latina law student admissions, from 4.2% in 2008 to 8.4% in 2023.

The impact of Luminarias extends well beyond the legal profession. In large part, the Latino community was the beneficiary of their commitment and service; work I endeavor to shine a light on in future writings.

Through this Study, it was my intention to document the empirical profile of Luminarias and share snapshots of their interesting and inspiring experiences; to expose their journey to the younger generation of Latina attorneys and illuminate their legacy to the legal profession.

The sentimental stories referenced in this Article embody the humble experiences of those Latinas who surrendered their career dreams for the ultimate benefit of those bolder to pursue their legal ones. In my case, it was the lives of three generations of Mexican and MexicanAmerican women and the passing of 80 years. Collectively, they laid the path for me, brick by brick. They are but a few of the women who provided the inspiration for this Study.

Likely, I will never find a satisfactory answer to the inequality that persists in education--perpetuated, most notably, by the recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings--but the discovery that other Latinas pursued the same dreams under similar conditions provided the affirmation that I was not alone--in the journey and the good fight to diversify the profession.

Licensure in years beyond the Study Period of 1980 was identified in prior research, e.g., Dolores S. Atencio, Las Primeras Abogadas Un Legado, Saluting Hispanic Women Lawyers in the 50 States

Dolores S. Atencio is a Colorado lawyer and first Visiting Scholar at the University of Denver (DU) Latinx Center | Sturm College of Law (DU Law) and Abi to Jorge Julian and Lilia Simone.