The first woman to be licensed as an attorney in North Carolina and in the Southern United States was Tabitha Ann Holton.
One of five children, Tabitha Ann Holton was born in Iredell County in the early 1850s to Quinton and Harriet Holton. Her parental lineage included Quaker and Moravian roots, and her family, like many other religious dissenters, migrated southward from the northern United States into North Carolina.
Her father, however, was a radical, itinerant Methodist preacher who regularly and publicly condemned slavery. In 1863, her father was elected as the president of the North Carolina Conference for Methodist Preachers, and his additional duties undoubtedly demanded more time away from his familial responsibilities. As a result, Tabitha saw her father every so often in between preaching circuits.
In 1871, Tabitha Ann’s mother, Harriet died, and shortly afterward, the Holton family moved to Guilford County to be closer to their extended family. There, Tabitha started attending Greensboro Academy and started supplementing her education with legal books borrowed from friends and local lawyers. By 1878, Holton had graduated from Greensboro Academy and had decided to be an attorney.
On January 8, 1878, Tabitha Ann Holton and her brother, Samuel, appeared before the Supreme Court of North Carolina to take the bar exam and earn their licenses to practice law. Her request startled the court, and the judge doubted the lower court’s authority to admit a woman to the bar. There had been, however, a recent U.S. Supreme Court case in 1872 (Bradwell v. State of Illinois) in which the decision stated that individual states had the authority to decide whether to admit women to the bar. This decision rested on the belief that women did not have a federal constitutional right to pursue a profession. The aspiring lawyer remained resilient and determined, and in the end, the North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to hear Tabitha Ann Holton’s case.
Holton retained the counsel of Albion Tourgèe, an old family friend, a well-known attorney, and a leading Reconstruction politician. On the morning of January 9, 1872, Tourgèe argued that the bar admission statue simply stated, “all persons who may apply for admission.” Tourgèe went on to list precedent in other states: Five others had admitted women to the bar and this action enabled women, Tourgee reasoned, to pursue a noble profession that fostered good morals. In his closing statements, Tourgèe reminded the Court that Tabitha Ann Holton was not asking for favors. She wanted only a fair chance to be admitted to the bar.
Tabitha Ann Holton then took the stand. With aplomb, she fielded many difficult questions that demanded sophisticated answers. The Raleigh News reported her performance in this way: “Her answers to all the questions propounded were satisfactory and were given in such a manner as to show her acquaintance with the law. Not a single question was unanswered, and it was stated that she passed the examination as well, if not better, than any of the masculine applicants.”
Within ten minutes, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that Holton should be granted acceptance to the North Carolina bar. As a result, she became the first woman in a Southern state to be licensed as an attorney and one of only a few dozen at the time across the country.
Tabitha Ann Holton set up her law practice in conjunction with her brother in Dobson, North Carolina. Although she argued in court a few times, she focused her career on legal research and left her brother with the court appearances. She practiced law in the small Surry County town from 1878 until 1886.
In 1886, at the age of only thirty-three, Tabitha contracted tuberculosis and died. The town of Dobson mourned, and town leaders distributed a handbill honoring Tabitha Ann Holton’s life and accomplishments. The legal pioneer was buried in Springfield Meeting House cemetery in Guilford County.
Barbara Allen Babcock, Clara Shortridge Foltz: First Woman, 28 Valparaiso University Law Review 1231 (Summer 1994); Bradwell v. State of Illinois, 83 U.S. 130 (1873); Raleigh Observer, The Female Lawyer, January 10, 1878; Patrice Walker, esq., The Chapel Hill News, Remembering Tabitha Holton’s Legacy, April 28, 2010.