Before RBG, A Cleveland Judge Made History; It’s Time To Recognize Unstoppable Florence Allen

By Andrea Simakis
The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Florence Ellinwood Allen became the first woman to sit on any “court of last resort” in America when she was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1922. She was re-elected to another six-year term in 1928.


Imagine this scene: It’s August 1920 in Cleveland and women have just won the right to vote. They take to the streets, petitions in hand, some hitching up their ground-dusting skirts and scaling scaffolding to collect signatures from construction workers — all men no doubt — raising skyscrapers in the fifth largest city in the country.

Few candidates today could inspire the passion Florence Ellinwood Allen did nearly 100 years ago during her historic run for judge. The lawyer had gained a loyal following of fan girls while stumping for suffrage. Armed with her own soap box and fiery speeches, she crisscrossed rural Ohio and drew crowds in Cleveland’s Public Square.

But until women could legally vote, they couldn’t run for office. While her male opponents were campaigning, Allen, then the first woman assistant county prosecutor in the country, had to sit out the primaries until the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920.

By then, the election was 10 weeks away and Allen’s only hope of getting her name on the ballot was by petition. That’s when her female troops sprang into action, gathering 2,000 signatures in two days.

Allen won by a landslide.

The first woman trial court judge in the United States understood that her new black robes were heavier than any man’s.

“If I make good,” Allen reasoned, “I can help prove that a woman’s place is as much on the bench, in City Council, or in Congress, as in the home.”

Her colleagues wasted no time trying to sideline her, suggesting she preside over a divorce court, domestic affairs being a more suitable assignment for a woman. No thanks, Allen said.

“I did not care to spend my life hearing and deciding divorce controversies,” she wrote. “Since I was unmarried, I thought these eleven men, most of them married, were better qualified than I to carry their share of this burden.”

Long before there was the Notorious RBG, there was the Unstoppable FEA, a woman who never met a glass ceiling she wouldn’t fling a rock through.

She became the first woman to sit on any “court of last resort” in America when she was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1922. Allen was re-elected to another six-year term in 1928.

She was musing running for a third term when Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed her to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1934, another first.

Although Sandra Day O’Connor was the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice — and lordly, it took long enough, her appointment coming in 1981 — Allen was the first woman to be considered for a spot on the highest court in the land.

All this and I’d never heard of her until three weeks ago. Neither had a lot of women I know.

Women’s history is always about playing catch-up, so I buried myself in her archive at the Western Reserve Historical Society — 30 boxes of Allen’s memorabilia, including her correspondence with luminaries the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, who made no secret of the fact that she wanted husband FDR to appoint Allen to the Supreme Court.

Her name was again floated for a Supreme Court vacancy under President Truman, but word is male judges balked at the idea of sharing their chambers with a woman. To hell with her celebrated logic and fairness. How could they feel comfortable putting their feet up and loosening their ties with her around?

Allen’s pioneering achievements are even more jaw-dropping when you consider she almost didn’t get the chance to earn a law degree.

Allen wanted to attend law school at her alma mater, Western Reserve University, but she was refused admission because she was a woman. She got the same sexist stiff arm from Columbia. But neighboring New York University Law School opened its doors to her. She graduated second in her class.

Back in Cleveland, no law firm would hire her. One prospective employer gestured to snowflakes floating past the window and declared, “Why, I wouldn’t think of sending a woman down to the Court House on a day like this.” So Allen opened her own office.

There isn’t enough room in this column to catalog her accomplishments but one of my favorites is during her dramatic tenure as a Cuyahoga County judge.

She presided over a sensational, mobbed up murder trial that earned her death threats and mash notes from ordinary Clevelanders — pipefitters and homemakers alike — who wrote to praise her sharp mind and her moxie. Following the jury’s guilty verdict, Allen notched another first: No woman had ever sentenced a man to the electric chair.

How has she been so easily forgotten?

You’ll find discreet homages to Allen here and there: Her portrait hangs among those of other justices in Columbus at the Ohio Supreme Court and in the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati. And there’s a plaque at Laurel School where she taught Greek, grammar and American history.

But oil paintings and plaques are hardly enough for a woman who more than earned the nickname “first lady of the law.”

Cleveland’s downtown Justice Center is being eyed for a much needed overhaul, something Judge Allen, known for her crisp efficiency and professionalism, would be all for.

This is our chance to give the woman her due. What will it take to get her name chiseled into the side of that building?

Ladies, it’s time to scale some scaffolds.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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