March is Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on and appreciate the contributions made by pioneers and trailblazers.
In the law profession, that means women like Arabella Mansfield, America’s first female attorney. She passed the Iowa bar exam with high marks in 1869, although it was limited to “white male persons” at the time. And Ada Kepley, the first woman to graduate law school (Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, with honors, in 1870).
Charlotte Ray had to enroll in Howard University’s Law School under the name C. E. Ray to disguise her gender, but when she graduated in 1872 she became the first Black woman in the United State to receive a law degree and become an attorney.
North Carolina has its own pioneers, including Tabitha Holton, the state's first woman lawyer, and Susie Sharp, the first female Supreme Court associate justice.
Tabitha Ann Holton petitioned the Supreme Court of North Carolina to be allowed to sit for the state bar examination after graduating from Greensboro Academy in 1878. The Court deliberated for 10 minutes before allowing her to take the examination, which she passed. The Court then presented Tabitha with her law license, which is now part of the Supreme Court's collection of historic artifacts.
Susie Sharp became the first female judge in the history of the state in 1949. She became the first female associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court when she was appointed by Gov. Terry Sanford in 1962, and the first women elected Chief Justice when she received 74 percent of the vote in 1974.
While those women were true pioneers, history is still being made today, by women like Donna Stroud. Stroud is chief judge of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the third woman to hold the post in the 54 years since the General Assembly established the court.
“It’s a little weird to think of it that way (as history),” she said. “I suppose so. We have had two previous women chief judges on our court, but certainly not that many.”
Listen to Chief Judge Stroud and three other current and former Court of Appeal judges on the latest All Things Judicial Podcast, "Celebrate Women's History"She was first elected to the state’s intermediate appellate court in 2006. She became chief judge effective January 1, 2021, replacing Linda McGee, who retired after serving as chief judge since 2014.
Since Chief Judge Stroud replaced another woman, she doesn’t necessarily see herself as a pioneer in that regard. But she does claim a historic first.
“I was elected without opposition in 2014,” she said. “Someone mentioned to me that I was the first woman elected statewide in North Carolina without opposition. I’ve researched it as well as I can, and I couldn’t find a woman elected without opposition. As best as I can tell, I was the first one.”
Somewhat ironically, when Chief Judge Stroud was growing up in Kinston she doesn’t remember being motivated by any women who blazed the trail that she would take into the law profession.
“When I was little and decided I wanted to be a lawyer, I didn’t know any lawyers, male or female,” she said. “Then once I was an attorney and started thinking about being a judge, I was motivated by the fact that a number of women in this area had become district court judges in particular.”
It was actually her father who piqued her interest in the law.
“I decided in third grade I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said. “I heard my father talking about court. He would go down to the courthouse and watch cases. I don’t remember any particular story, but I must have heard him talking about it.”
That doesn’t mean she didn’t have strong role models.
“Really the main ones would have been my family. My grandmother, my mother,” she said. “It was more of an inspiration to improve my life. They had very difficult lives.”
She also had inspiring teachers, including a particularly memorable one in elementary school.
“Miss Darby, my fourth-grade teacher,” she said. “She was the one everyone was terrified of, but I grew to love her. She taught us there was the right way, the wrong way, and the Darby way. That’s the way it is in any class or job. There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the fill-in-the-name-of-a-supervisor’s way.”
Women serving in high judicial positions still might not be common, but it is not as rare as it once was. Chief Judge Stroud is the third women to serve as chief judge of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and the second consecutive. Five women have served as chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Does that mean the glass ceiling, if not shattered, has at least been cracked when it comes to the legal profession?
“To a large extent it has,” she said. “Women have been successful in running (for judicial office). It all goes back to law schools. They are now above 50 percent female enrollment. That has changed dramatically in the last few years.”
Chief Judge Stroud wants to make sure today’s law school graduates are equipped to follow in her footsteps. She serves on the Women in the Profession Committee of the North Carolina Bar Association.
“That’s one of the committees I’ve been on in a while, to train and mentor women,” she said.
Her desire to mentor and advise extends to taking the time to participate in the latest episode of the All Things Judicial podcast.
"I hope the experiences shared by the judges in this podcast encourage any woman, or any person, who has dreamed of entering the legal profession, whether as an attorney, judge, or one of many other roles which are essential to our courts, to follow that dream," she said. "There are many people and resources available to help on this journey. Feel free to seek guidance from lawyers, judges, and law schools. Most of us are very glad to answer questions and share the lessons from our experiences. All you have to do is ask."
Learn more about Chief Judge Stroud.