08 Mar Past, Present, Future: Notable Kentucky Women in Law

As a first generation law student from the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, it is important to me to reflect on the Kentucky women who have come before me. The earliest of Kentucky’s women attorneys had to fight to have their place in the classroom, in the courtroom, and on the bench. 

Sophonisba Breckinridge

Sophonisba Breckenridge in graduation robes

The first woman admitted to the Kentucky Bar was Sophonisba Breckinridge in 1892, a born and raised Kentuckian who received her law degree from Wellesley. Breckinridge had little success with practicing law in Kentucky as many, primarily men, believed that as a woman she should not be practicing law. As a result, she moved to Chicago where she became a professor at the University of Chicago. Throughout her life, Breckinridge focused her legal work on social welfare issues pertaining to children and women.

Nellie Almee Courtright

Nellie Almee Courtright with her peers at UofL

It was not until 1911 that the first woman graduated from a Kentucky law school, specifically the University of Louisville Law School. Nellie Almee Courtright was born in Chicago, Illinois, where she received a degree in teaching and social work. Courtright began law school in the fall of 1910, while also serving as the managing director of the Board of Children’s Guardians Detention Home in Louisville.[1] Courtright graduated from the Louisville Law School in the Spring of 1911, and she immediately hit the ground running. That Fall, Courtright played a role in planning the “Child and the Law” showcase that occurred in Louisville at the Kentucky Child Welfare Exhibit. Courtright later left Kentucky for sunny California, where she continued to make an impact with the creation of the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles.

Laura Douglas

Laura Douglas

It must be noted that, while Courtright made history when she graduated in 1911, it took over 60 years for a woman of color to graduate from the same university. In 1974, Laura Douglas, a born and raised Louisvillian, became the first black woman to graduate from the University of Louisville Law School. After graduation, Douglas was in-house counsel for Standard Oil Company. In 1985, Douglas transitioned to working at the Louisville Legal Aid Society and as general counsel for Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District. After her retirement, Douglas made history again by becoming the first black woman to serve as the Muhammad Ali Center’s President and CEO from 2021 to 2022. Douglas now continues to serve her community as the Interim President and CEO for the West End Opportunity Partnership.

Jefferson County Family Court (and beyond)

The Jefferson County Family Court Judges: Angela Johnson, Shelley Santry, Lori Goodwin, Lauren Adams Ogden, Jessica Stone, Christine Ward, Denise Brown, Bryan Goodwin, Gina Calvert, and Derwin Webb.

We see the effect of these trailblazing women every day in the Jefferson County Family Court. Not only in the number of our fellow attorneys who are women, but on the bench as well. Historically, as with most things, the position of judge has been held by men. However, a new trend has been established where the number of women judges outnumber those that are men – eight of the ten Family Court judges are women, shown and listed above. Among these women, the Family Court bench also boasts historic intersectional representation. These women currently include Hon. Shelley Santry, the first openly lesbian judge in Kentucky, and three Black female judges, Hon. Angela Johnson, Hon. Lori Goodwin, and Hon. Denise Brown. It is remarkable that women have been able to make change and progress to achieve these landmark positions. Thanks to women like Nellie Almee Courtright and Laura Douglas, we now have law schools and courtrooms filled with diverse women. It is important that we recognize them and today’s women in the legal field as they will inspire future generations to achieve their goals in the practice of law.

By Taylor Reese

Read more about these and other notable Kentucky women:

  1. Also known as the Detention Home for the Louisville Juvenile Court. ↩︎