Friday 5: Groundbreaking Women in the Law

Dixy Lee Ray
Celebrate International Women’s Day with five groundbreaking Washington women!

Dixie Lee Ray

Dixie Lee Ray. By Harold “Scotty” Sapiro, Seattle Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

March is Women’s History Month, a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture, and society. It is a time to honor those women who have shaped and changed history, making it possible for women to be who we are today. In a field historically dominated by men, numerous women have been instrumental in contributing to the development and growth of women in the legal profession. Meet some groundbreaking Washington women in the field of law.

Bertha Denton Snell: First woman admitted to the Washington State Bar

Bertha Snell was admitted to the Washington Bar in 1889. Originally from New York, she arrived in Tacoma on Nov. 10, 1889, the day before Washington was declared a state. She practiced law in Tacoma with her husband in their joint law firm, Snell and Snell, and practiced law until 1953. Snell and her husband worked primary with cases of land and water use in numerous territories in the west.

Leila J. Robinson: One of Washington Territory’s early female lawyers

Leila J. Robinson was the first woman in Washington to argue a case to a jury and to argue in front of a jury consisting of both men and women in 1884. She was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1882, where she was the first woman to graduate from Boston University School of Law. In 1884, she moved to Seattle, where society was more receptive to women in the law. Additionally, she wrote a few publications, including a book on divorce law titled The Law of Husband and Wife.

Dixy Lee Ray: Washington state’s first female governor

Dixy Lee Ray was a marine biologist and taught at the University of Washington from 1947–1972. In 1973, she was appointed by Richard Nixon to chair the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and was the only woman to serve as chair of the AEC. Dr. Ray was elected governor of Washington as a Democrat in 1976. She had strong conservative views, especially regarding environmental and energy policy. She was governor when Mount St. Helens started volcanic activity, and she acted to declare a state of emergency and urged people to stay away from the mountain. She lost in the 1980 Democratic primary election to then-State Sen. Jim McDermott.

Barbara M. Durham: First female chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court

Barbara Durham became a judge in 1973 and was elected a judge on the King County Superior Court in 1977. In 1980, she was appointed by Gov. Dixy Lee Ray to the Washington Court of Appeals. In 1985, Gov. John Spellman appointed her to the Washington Supreme Court, where she was chosen as chief justice by her peers in 1995. She stepped down as chief justice in 1998 and resigned from the Washington Supreme Court in 1999.

Betty Fletcher: First woman president of the King County Bar Association

Betty Fletcher served as the first woman president of the King County Bar Association. The daughter of an attorney, Betty Fletcher grew up in Tacoma, attended Stanford University, and finished law school at the University of Washington after having four children. In 1972, she was also the co-chair of the state equal rights amendment campaign and was later appointed by Gov. Dan Evans to the Washington State Women’s Council. She was named to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by President Carter in 1979.