Education

Before her, SC women couldn't practice law. All that changed, thanks to this USC grad

Claudia James Sullivan was the first woman to graduate from University of South Carolina's Law School in 1918, and was a driving force behind legislation that allowed women to practice law in South Carolina.
Claudia James Sullivan was the first woman to graduate from University of South Carolina's Law School in 1918, and was a driving force behind legislation that allowed women to practice law in South Carolina.

When Claudia James Sullivan enrolled at the University of South Carolina, the law prohibited her from practicing her dream job.

She could have earned her law degree in another state — some allowed women to be lawyers in 1916 — but she stood her ground. When USC refused to let her into law school, she walked to the State House and convinced a lawmaker to sponsor legislation allowing women to practice law in the Palmetto State. She took a copy of the pending legislation back to USC's administration, and she was admitted into the school, according to a letter she wrote to her niece in 1969 that was printed in "Portia Steps Up to the Bar: The First Women Lawyers of South Carolina."

When she presented the document to a group of USC administrators, "You could hear the traditions of the elders splintering," she wrote.

A century ago to the day, June 12, 1918, Sullivan became the first woman to graduate from USC's School of Law.

"She just didn't see it as an option to be told no," said William Rivers, one of Sullivan's great, great nephews who recalls speaking to her in 1988 — two years before she died in 1990 — when she was 95. "She was very intelligent. She was feisty, and she was quick-witted, even at that age."

Sullivan — whom her husband called "Jimmie" and Rivers called "Aunt Claude" — wasn't the first female lawyer in South Carolina. That was James Perry, who was admitted to the state bar a month earlier. But that wouldn't have been possible had Sullivan not advocated for legislation, signed just months before her graduation, that allowed women to practice law in South Carolina. Before that, women who wanted to practice law would be educated in other states and return to South Carolina, where they could give legal advice, but were not allowed to represent clients in court, said Dawn Campbell, a USC associate professor of Women's and Gender Studies.

"Women like Claudia James Sullivan have paved the way and made strides ... but there's still a long way to go," Campbell said. "I think that's still going on 100 years later, that women have to convince people they're qualified."

Sullivan's efforts won women the right to practice law two years before women were allowed to vote and 51 years before women were permitted to serve on a state jury.

"Helping to enact legislation not only allowed her to attend law school and become a lawyer, but paved the way for so many others to do the same," Sheila Willis, president of South Carolina Women Lawyers Association, wrote in an email. "She was courageous and selfless and the women graduates of the University of South Carolina School of Law and South Carolina’s women attorneys are in her debt."

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