Editors’ Note: This obituary is from the January 9, 2019, New York Times. As the Times’ Jillian Rayfield explains, Overlooked covers “stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times” because “Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men.”
Laura de Force Gordon was speaking from experience when, in 1893, she described in a speech how “society has sneered at learned women.” She spent decades trying to change that.
Gordon, a suffragist, journalist and lawyer, had spent several decades establishing herself in fields that had been historically limited to men, and was frequently met with scorn and opposition.
When she was barred from attending law school in 1878, she was told it was because “rustling skirts” distracted the male students. When she became the second woman admitted to the Supreme Court bar in 1885, a newspaper lamented “hens” piping “shrill clarions” at the justices. And in 1889, as she worked to advocate for women’s suffrage, another newspaper dismissed her as an “apostle of discontent for the profit she can make out of it.”
For the professional woman, Gordon said, “if she has succeeded at all in accomplishing anything outside the nursery, the kitchen or church work, it has been as a warrior battling for his rights against fearful odds.”
Gordon herself successfully fought for some of these rights for women, helping to enshrine protections against education and employment discrimination into California law. A passionate advocate for women’s right to vote, she worked to establish the suffrage movement on the West Coast.
“Woman is no longer content to remain a subject,” she said in the 1893 speech at a convention of women in Chicago.
Laura de Force was born in Erie County, Pa., on Aug. 17, 1838. Her father, Abram de Force, had rheumatism and could not work, so her mother, Catherine Doolittle Allen, supported their nine children as a seamstress.
In 1862, she married Dr. Charles H. Gordon, a Scot who was in the Third Rhode Island Cavalry. They eventually settled in what would become Lodi, Calif., in 1870.
In 1868 she gave a landmark speech in San Francisco that called for equal rights for women, catapulting her to prominence in the national suffrage movement, and catching the attention of Susan B. Anthony, who said of Gordon, “You can’t imagine how it delights my soul to find such an earnest, noble young woman possessed of powers oratorical.”
“The most chaste, elegant and forcible words in the language poured from her lips like a stream of liquid fire,” The Elko independent, a newspaper in Nevada, once wrote about a speech she gave in 1870, “and her eyes sparkled with animation, her graceful form swayed to and fro, and her taper fingers moved through the air in unison with her burning words.”
As her reputation grew, so did her political influence. Gordon helped form the California Woman Suffrage Society in 1870, and later served as its president. In 1871, the Independent Party of San Joaquin County nominated her for state senator, though the move was more symbolic; there was little hope of her winning.
Gordon entered journalism in 1873, and eventually became the editor and publisher of The Stockton Weekly Leader. She wrote that she was aware of the challenge for a woman running a newspaper, having “already experienced the pressure of the tide which a woman must work against, if she dare deviate from the old routine of dish-washing and cradle-rocking.” Though the paper was successful, Gordon sold it in 1876 and began considering a more financially stable career in law.
At the time only a “white male citizen” could be admitted to the state’s bar, so Gordon worked alongside Clara Shortridge Foltz, a reformer and women’s rights advocate, to engineer the passage in 1878 of the Woman Lawyer’s Bill, allowing women to practice law in California.
Foltz and Gordon applied to Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. They each paid the $10 tuition, but were expelled just a few days later. They were told “that their presence, particularly their rustling skirts, was bothering the other scholars,” the historian Barbara Babcock wrote in “Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz.”
Gordon and Foltz challenged their expulsions in court, where they were met with similar arguments. “An impartial jury would be impossible when a lovely lady pleaded the case of the criminal,” said one attorney for the school.
Gordon and Foltz broadened their efforts, successfully pushing for measures in the state’s constitution that would prevent discrimination in employment and education “on account of sex.”
This victory helped them win their legal case, and though Gordon never finished law school, she studied and passed the state bar on her own.
She started her own practice for criminal and family law, and in 1880, became the first woman to address a jury in California when she defended a murder suspect. Of this, Gordon said: “I have no fears of the ordeal.”
Though she won many cases, newspapers often focused on her appearance. “Her attire was simple,” one wrote in 1882, “a black dress; her only ornament a rose at the throat.”
Others were more scathing. In 1885, Gordon became the second woman admitted to the Supreme Court bar, after Belva Lockwood. One newspaper described Gordon and Lockwood as “the only hens that have yet perched upon that bar and piped their shrill clarions” at the “grave and reverend Seniors.”
Gordon died in Lodi on April 5, 1907, at 68. The cause was a bronchial illness about four years before women were granted the right to vote in California, and more than a decade before the 19th Amendment established that right for women across the United States. But she was always optimistic: “Woman suffrage is bound to come,” she wrote in 1896.
“There has never been a time when so many men and women took so deep an interest in the subject,” she wrote, “and I am happy in the thought that our day of political freedom is so near.”