Women’s History Month: Women Breaking Boundaries


Reprinted with Permission from the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

By Fay Mitchell

There are women who push against boundaries and go those places they are told they cannot go. Occupations in law, politics and religion have often been off limits. For many years women could not offer legal representation in America. But some exceptional women challenged that notion and went on to represent clients in courts of law, and in the pulpit as well.

As early as the 17th century, Ann Marwood Durant was no stranger to the legal system, and was the first woman to act as an attorney in a case May 25, 1673. Court sessions were commonly held in homes, and in a session at the home of council member Frances Godfrey, Durant successfully represented Andrew Ball in his effort to recover wages for his work aboard the vessel Two Brothers. She appeared before the courts on at least 20 other occasions in Perquimans County, often to recover debts owed to her store. In fact, through the proprietary period (under the rule of the Lords Proprietors), it was not unusual for women to act as attorneys in court.

The first woman to receive a law license in North Carolina was Tabitha Ann Holton, licensed in January 1878. She is said to have borrowed books from members of the Greensboro bar and gained knowledge while tutoring her brothers. The state Supreme Court administered the test and questioned if a southern lady should be “permitted to sully her sweetness by breathing the pestiferous air of the courtroom.” She aced the examination and was licensed, but is only recorded to have gone into court once, in Surry County where she lived.

In 1916, Lillian Clement Exum passed the bar exam, started a practice in Asheville the next year and became known as a capable criminal lawyer. Called “Brother Exum” by the other attorneys, she was so well respected as to be nominated as a Democratic candidate for the State House two months before passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. She overwhelmingly defeated two male opponents in the primary and won the general election in November. Upon taking her seat in January 1921, she became the first woman in the South to hold legislative office.

Pauli Murray fought against dual discrimination. The class valedictorian of the segregated Hillside High School in Durham at age 16, she also attended Richmond High School in New York for another diploma. She studied at Hunter College, then applied to the University of North Carolina, where she was denied admission because of her race. In 1941, she was admitted to Howard University Law School, where she experienced gender discrimination. She was denied admittance to Harvard for advanced study also because of her gender, but earned a masters in law degree in California.

Murray worked for many civil rights and women’s organizations, helped found the National Organization of Women and became the nation’s first African American female Episcopal priest in 1977. She held her first Eucharist in Chapel Hill, where her grandmother had been a slave.

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