Laura de Force Gordon

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Laura de Force Gordon
Laura de Force Gordon.jpg
Born Laura de Force
(1838-08-17)August 17, 1838
Died April 5, 1907(1907-04-05) (aged 68)
Lodi, California
Occupation Lawyer and women's-rights advocate
Known for Second female lawyer in California

Laura de Force Gordon (née Laura de Force; August 17, 1838, North East, Pennsylvania – April 5, 1907, Lodi, California) was an American lawyer, editor, and a prominent campaigner for women’s rights in the American West.[1] She was the first woman to run a daily newspaper in the United States (the Stockton Daily Leader, 1873). She was a key proponent of the Women’s Lawyers Bill allowing women to practice law in California, and the related language in the California Constitution allowing women to practice any profession in California.[2]

Early life and career[edit]

Laura de Force was born in Pennsylvania to Catherine Doolittle Allan and Abram de Force, in a family of nine children and a father struggling with rheumatism.[2] Despite the hardships, she was fortunate enough to become well-educated and master oral communications. After the death of one of their children in 1855, the whole de Force family turned to Spiritualism. Laura became particularly gifted in "communicating with the spirits" and toured the Northeast with public exhibitions. During one such event, she met Charles H. Gordon, and married him in 1862.[2] They lived in New Orleans, Louisiana during the American Civil War, but in 1867 moved west to Nevada, and finally settled in Mokelumne (later Lodi), California in 1870.[1]

In the late 1860s, Gordon gradually turned from Spiritualism to women's rights. On February 19, 1868 she made a speech in Platt’s Hall in San Francisco that has been said to launch the California Suffrage Movement, and later helped found the California Women’s Suffrage Society.[3] She continued touring the United States, giving speeches on spirituality, women’s rights, and civil rights.

In 1873 Gordon became an editor and reporter for the Stockton Narrow Gauge and later that year a publisher of the Stockton Weekly Leader, which became a daily newspaper in 1874. She then sold the Daily Leader and between 1876 and 1878 published the Oakland Daily Democrat, after which she left journalism. During those years, she divorced her husband, and also published a travel guidebook The Great Geysers of California and How to Reach Them.[2]

Activism and legal career[edit]

Gordon, along with fellow suffragette Clara S. Foltz, was a prominent supporter of the Women Lawyers Bill, which granted women the right to practice law in California in 1878. Despite being unable to vote because of her gender, Gordon later the same year sought election as a delegate to the California state Constitutional Convention, but was defeated. Despite not being elected as a delegate to the convention, Gordon and Foltz successfully pushed for the inclusion of Article XX, Section 18, of the Constitution, which prohibited state law from barring women from entering any profession.[4] In 1879, Gordon and Foltz were briefly admitted to the recently opened Hastings College of the Law, but were quickly barred, in part because the school's Dean felt their "rustling skirts" bothered the male students.[5] Together, the women filed and argued a lawsuit that persuaded the state's Supreme Court to overturn that decision.

On December 6, 1879, Gordon was admitted to the California Bar, and in 1880 established her own firm in San Francisco specializing in general and criminal law. Her successful defense of an Italian immigrant facing a death penalty caused the Royal Italian Literary Society of Rome to make her an honorary member. On February 3, 1883, Gordon became the second woman to be admitted to the Bar of the United States Supreme Court.[3] She was also an active suffragette, though women's suffrage was defeated at the state ballot box in 1896. During her 20 years of legal practice she earned widespread respect in California.[2]

Later life[edit]

Gordon spent her last years on her silk farm in Lodi, California. Her health deteriorated in 1906 after the premature death of her grandchild. In March 1907 she caught a severe cold on a trip to Los Angeles and died in Lodi the next month.[2]


In May 1879, Gordon left a copy of her pamphlet The Great Geysers of California and How to Reach Them in a time capsule which was being prepared for burial in San Francisco's Washington Square park. In her fine handwriting, Gordon wrote inside the flyleaf:

If this little book should see the light after its 100 years of entombment, I would like its readers to know that the author was a lover of her own sex and devoted the best years of her life in striving for the political equality and social and moral elevation of women.

Gordon's inscription was read aloud in public after the time capsule was opened in April 1979 by a group which included mayor Dianne Feinstein, and author Armistead Maupin, who was there to deposit his book Tales of the City into the time capsule to be re-opened in 2079. Gordon's unexpected and frank inscription was the highlight of the time capsule ceremony.[6]

In May 1980, Ms. magazine printed an item about "Mid-Revolutionary Mores" which included a partial quote of the Gordon inscription, leaving out the words "a lover of her own sex". A reader complained of historical inaccuracy in a letter to the editor in 1981, saying how Gordon was certainly devoted to women's equality, but that the magazine should not have described her as such without telling the reader she was also a lesbian.[7]


  1. ^ a b Laura de Force Gordon. Encyclopedia Britannica. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Jalowitz, Alan. "Laura deForce Gordon". Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Gloria G. Harris, Hannah S. Cohen. Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present. pp. 45–48. ISBN 1609496752. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  4. ^ Babcock, Barbara. "150th Anniversary of the Supreme Court" (PDF). Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  5. ^ Ginsburg, Ruth (February 2013). "Book Review: Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz" (PDF). Stanford Law Review. 65:399: 409. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  6. ^ Stryker, Susan; Van Buskirk, Jim (1996). Gay by the Bay: a history of queer culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. Chronicle Books. p. 2. ISBN 0811811875. 
  7. ^ "Letters to the Editor". Ms. 9: 142. 1981.