Florence Ellinwood Allen (1884-1966) was a pioneering woman in the U.S. justice system, serving in a variety of roles in the legal profession previously filled only by men.
Florence Ellinwood Allen was possibly the premiere pioneer female judge in United States history. In fact, any question that begins, "Who was the first woman judge to … " regardless as to how the question ends, the chances are good the answer is "Florence Ellinwood Allen." She was Ohio's first female assistant county prosecutor, the first woman ever to preside over a first-degree murder trial, the first woman to pronounce a death sentence, the first woman to be elected to a Court of Appeals, and the first woman ever appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Early Life and Education
Allen was born in Salt Lake City, the daughter of Clarence Emir Allen, a professor of classical languages at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. With her father coaching her, she became proficient in Greek and Latin by age seven and was preparing for college by age 13. As a teenager she attended a lecture by suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony. Subsequently, she became Anthony's protégé and a lifelong feminist activist.
She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Western Reserve in 1904, then studied music for two years in Europe with hopes of becoming a concert pianist. That career was derailed by a nerve injury, but upon returning to Cleveland in 1906 she became music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a job she held for three years.
Allen became interested in law early in the next decade, but would not be admitted to Western Reserve's law school because she was a woman. She attended the University of Chicago for one year before earning a law degree from New York University in 1913. She worked her way through N.Y.U. by serving as investigator for the New York League for the Protection of Immigrants and lecturing on music for the Board of Education.
Allen overcame discrimination to be admitted to the Ohio bar in 1914 and established a law practice in Cleveland that specialized in women's legal problems. She worked as a volunteer counselor for the Legal Aid Society, worked for the Woman's Suffrage Party of Cleveland and became a leader in Ohio's state campaign for women's voting rights. She was appointed assistant prosecutor for Cuyahoga County in 1919.
In 1921 Allen was the first woman in American history to become judge of a Common Pleas Court when she was elected to the bench in Cuyahoga County. She tried 892 cases from that bench, including eight murder trials. There she developed a reputation as a "no-nonsense" jurist. She did not hesitate to sentence fellow judges to prison when they were caught in wrongdoing. In 1925 she presided over one of her most famous cases, the trial of Frank Motto, who had been accused of murdering two manufacturers in a payroll robbery. Motto was convicted and Allen returned a sentence of death. In 1926 Allen was the first woman to be appointed associate justice on the Ohio State Supreme Court. During the 1920s Allen cultivated a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and in 1934 Mrs. Roosevelt convinced her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to appoint Allen as the first female judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, making her the country's foremost female jurist. During her 25 years on the Court of Appeals she handled cases dealing with taxation, patents, personal injuries, forgeries, contracts, interstate commerce, labor laws, and conflicts between federal and state authority. One noted trial in 1937-38 concerned a suit filed by 18 private utility companies against the Tennessee Valley Authority. Judge Allen ruled that the statute creating the T.V.A. was constitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision.
When Associate Justice George Sunderland retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in late 1937, Allen was widely regarded as a potential successor, but Roosevelt nominated Sen. Hugo Black of Alabama. In 1958, however, Allen became the first woman to serve as the chief judge of a federal appellate court, a position she held briefly until her retirement in 1959. Upon her retirement from active duty she was named a senior judge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and worked on her memoirs, titled "To Do Justly." She broke a hip at the age of 81, and suffered ill health until her death one year later.
Further Reading on Florence Ellinwood Allen
Florence Ellinwood Allen, To Do Justly (Cleveland: Western Reserve University Press, 1965).
Beverly Blair Cook, Entry on Allen, in Notable American Women: The Modern Period, edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, with the assistance of Ilene Kantrov and Harriette Walker (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 11-13.