This is the final piece of a 3-part series on women who made history in Arizona politics by writer/historian Heidi Osselaer.
Fulfilling the Promise
When Janet Napolitano ran for attorney general in Arizona in 1998, a reporter asked a question she will never forget: “So, do you plan on running as a woman attorney general?” Napolitano is sure that her opponent was never asked whether he would “run as a man.”
Even though as early as 1950, thirty-five women had served in Arizona’s legislature, two had held statewide executive office, and one, Isabella Greenway, had served in Congress, there remained a bias against women in the legal profession. The state did not lack for talented female attorneys. In 1893, Sarah Herring became the first woman admitted to practice law in Arizona. Even after her marriage to Thomas Sorin, she continued to practicing mining law in Tombstone with her father. In 1913, representing the Phelps Dodge Corporation, she became the first woman to argue a case unassisted by a man before the United States Supreme Court. Her success inspired other women to pursue law careers, despite warnings from men they were too delicate for the profession.
Nellie Trent Bush won election as justice of the peace in Yuma County in 1918, a position that required her to oversee coroner inquests. When critics suggested it was an inappropriate job for a woman, Bush retorted, “As if it were any more difficult for me than for a man.” She took a law correspondence course to help her with the position, but after election to the legislature in 1920, she became convinced she needed a legal education to succeed in politics. Bush, along with Lorna Lockwood, became the first female students at the University of Arizona’s School of Law. They were criticized, however, by the dean because “it was no place for a woman.” When Bush and Lockwood were barred from class because discussion of a rape case was planned, Bush pounced on the dean, asking him whether he “had ever heard of a rape case that didn’t involve a woman.” They attended the lecture when he offered no reasonable response.
In the legislature, Bush used her legal education to become the first female chair of the powerful judiciary committee. At home in Parker, Bush was the only lawyer, male or female, for miles, so her career blossomed, with her primary client the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1924 she was appointed U. S. commissioner—the federal attorney for the region—one of the earliest women in the nation to achieve that honor.
In contrast, her classmate Lorna Lockwood, who had graduated near the top of her class, had a tougher time establishing her career in the state capital which was teeming with male lawyers. She had hoped to go into practice with her father, Alfred C. Lockwood, a long-time Cochise County superior court judge, but he was appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court in 1925, crushing her plans. Lorna soon discovered few clients were willing to hire a female lawyer, so she served as her father’s legal secretary until she was recruited for the state legislature by members of Isabella Greenway’s Democratic women’s clubs and members the Arizona Business and Professional Women’s Club.
Lockwood served in the legislature from 1938 to 1944, sponsoring laws protecting children from molestation, improving transportation, and establishing a commission for unemployment compensation. Just as she was leaving politics for the private practice, Governor Sidney Osborn signed into law a bill that allowed women to serve on juries for the first time. Like the long suffrage battle, women had fought for the jury service for decades, but were repeatedly rebuffed because as one member of the house put it, “the average woman of the state sincerely objects to leaving her home, her children, and all that a mother’s heart holds dear, for the purpose of sitting as a judge in certain cases such as rape, bastardy, incest, sodomy, and murder.”
Deemed too delicate to hear court cases, women were overlooked for judicial appointments as well, until Lorna Lockwood challenged prevailing opinion. After an appointment as assistant attorney general, she won a seat on the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1950. When asked about the milestone victory, Lockwood admitted most people were surprised, “but the lawyers were the ones that were a little bit against it. They didn’t think a woman belonged on the bench. . . . There weren’t any valid reasons given, just that a woman hadn’t been there and shouldn’t be.”
After a decade of service on the superior court bench, often working on juvenile courts, Lockwood was elected to the Arizona Supreme Court, serving as Chief Justice in 1965, a first for a woman in the United States. Nationally, her work was recognized when Senator Carl Hayden recommended her for appointment to the United States Supreme Court. When President Lyndon Johnson made another choice, she commented, “I don’t think a woman should be denied a seat on the court just because she is a woman and I don’t think she should be given one just on the basis of being a woman either. The job is too important to be judged on this basis alone.”
Lockwood’s accomplishments opened opportunities for future generations of women in the judiciary. When she graduated near the top of her class at Stanford University Law School in 1952, Sandra Day O’Connor, like Lockwood, struggled to find work in private practice, requiring her to take a job at the Arizona attorney general’s office. After serving in the Arizona senate, where she became the first woman in the nation chosen by her peers to become majority leader, she won a seat on Lockwood’s former bench on the Maricopa County Superior Court. After a short stint on the state appellate court, she was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as the first female justice on the U. S. Supreme Court.
When Justice O’Connor arrived in Phoenix in January of 1999 to swear in five women as the top executives in state government, she was witnessing the culmination of nine decades of female office holding in Arizona. But she, as well as the women who took the oath of office that day as governor, attorney general, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction, and secretary of state, all understood the struggles of the past and the obstacles that remained.
Because of the work of women like Frances Willard Munds, Isabella Greenway, Nellie Trent Bush, and Lorna Lockwood, Arizona continues to lead the nation in female office holding. It is the only state to have had four women governors and, with 40 percent of the legislature female, is ranked number one in the nation for representation, fulfilling Nellie Bush’s 1935 declaration that what Arizona needs is “more she legislators rather than he legislators.”
This series was done for Globe Miami Times, by historian and author Heidi Osselaer, author of Winning Their Place: Arizona Women and Politics, 1883-1950 (University of Arizona Press, 2009).
Historian, professor, and public speaker. Fanatical about separating fact from fiction in Arizona history. Lives in Phoenix with her husband and fluffy dog Ajax.