March…. kind of fell off the rails. It was women’s history month, but, as we all know, current events demanded a little more attention than history. Still, here at NPS, we saw it as an excellent opportunity to explore how women came to dominate the office of Notary Public, and we still wanted to share with you the rich history of women serving as notaries.
For decades now, women have outnumbered men in the profession, but this was not always the case. The early history of women serving as notaries in the US is cringe worthy, as you might imagine. Just take a look at the words of our nation’s highest court in 1872.
“The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life” ruled Justice Samuel Miller in a Supreme Court decision against women working as lawyers. “The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”
The colonial history seemed promising enough. It’s possible that women held the office of Notary Public in colonial America if it was inherited. Many roles traditionally held by men were taken over by women simply because of the nature of building a new society. There were not enough men to fill every office that needed to be filled, so women enjoyed greater opportunity than they had in their former homes. However, once the US was established as an independent country, women were forbidden from holding any public office.
For a long time, laws affecting women were largely determined by marital status, using the terms feme covert and feme sole. A feme covert was a married woman and, once part of that union, everything she owned and did became her husband’s property. Feme sole was used to describe a single woman. The law allowed single women a bit more freedom. They could work and own property by necessity. The prevailing attitudes were evident in notary law. For a long time, it was required that a woman getting a notarization be “examined” outside of her husband’s presence to ensure that she understood what she was signing.
Thankfully, things began to change as the country changed. Women may have the US movement west to thank, in part, for both suffrage and the ability to hold public office. Much like colonial America, people settling west of the original states had to rely on each other to build the structure of society. Because of the lack of people, women could prove themselves based on their merits, rather than following the patriarchal status quo. Michigan was one of the first states to publicly appoint a female notary in 1838, only a year after it became a state. Missouri followed suit in 1869 with Redelia Bates, who was appointed by then Governor McGlurg– a long time advocate of women’s suffrage. Wyoming was the first state that afforded women the right to vote, also in 1869. Colorado, Utah and Idaho followed some years later. In both Texas and Wyoming, Women served as governor as early as 1925.
California was one of the pioneering states thanks, in large part, to the impressive career of one woman– Clara Shortridge-Foltz. Here, women could hold the office of Notary Public as early as 1891 because of this feminist trailblazer. After moving from Indiana to California, Shortridge-Foltz was abandoned by her womanizing husband to raise five children on her own. Before this, she lived a more historically traditional lifestyle– staying home to take care of her children, husband, and home. Once she was left to fend for herself, she single handedly changed the society around her. In addition to being the first female Notary Public commissioned in California, she was the first woman to practice law in the state, the first deputy district attorney in the US, the first woman prosecutor to try a murder case, the first woman to serve on the State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, the first woman appointed to the State Board of Corrections, and one of the original suffragettes, casting her first vote in 1911. She was the first woman to attend Hastings College of Law, a step she took after she was already actively practicing. She worked as a lecturer and a writer and founded publications on her own. She originated the concept of a public defender and even ran for Governor of California in 1930 at the age of 81. It’s safe to say the world would not have been the same without the tireless effort of Clara Shortridge-Foltz
The rest of the country came along a little more slowly. In 1928, 25 states allowed women to be notaries. By 1955, 12 states still barred women from holding the office. Slowly, the numbers whittled down, but there were stubborn states. Some of these restrictions remained in place as late as 1971, when the US Supreme Court ruled that discrimination based on sex violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Despite these barriers, women across the country were still working their way in. In 1948, even with restrictions in many states, it was estimated that more women notaries already outnumbered men. Today, women make up a little more than 70% of all commissioned notaries– a statistic that has remained fairly stable since the 1990s.
While we still have to work to make the world an equal place, it’s comforting to see how drastically things can change over the course of a few decades. Here’s hoping the world keeps opening up for all genders.