Florence Ellinood Allen was the first woman to serve on a state’s highest court (Ohio) and the first woman to hold an Article III federal judicial appointment. She was also the first woman to be an assistant county prosecutor in the US and the first woman to be elected to be a judge.
She was born in 1884 in Salt Lake City, one of 7 children. Her father was a linguistics professor and the family moved to Cleveland when he got a job at Western Reserve, which is now Case Western Reserve University. She learned Latin and Greek as a young girl, and she loved poetry and had a talent for piano. She entered college at Western Reserve at the age of 16 as a music major. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated in 1904. After college, she went to Berlin, Germany for two years to continue her music studies. After she returned from Germany, she was a school teacher and a music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper. She entered graduate school at Western Reserve, and earned a master’s degree in political science.
At that time, Western Reserve did not admit women to its law school, so she left Cleveland and enrolled in law school at the University of Chicago. She was the only woman in her class at Chicago, and she finished second in her class after her first semester.
She transferred to NYU Law, and graduated second in her class in 1913. She did not receive any job offers in New York, and she returned to Cleveland. She was admitted to the Ohio bar and went into private practice. During her first month in practice, she only made about $25, not enough to even cover her expenses. She said “I had no clients. And I had no money. But I had great hopes.” She did volunteer work to get experience, and ended up working on an important women’s suffrage case. Her case went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court and resulted in women gaining the right to vote in East Cleveland municipal elections. She remained active in the women’s suffrage movement. Then, in 1919 (one year before women got the right to vote), she became the first woman in the US to be appointed as an assistant prosecutor.
After the 19th Amendment was ratified, her friends encouraged her to run for a judgeship in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. She had to get on the ballot by petition since the primary had already passed. She was able to get the required number of signatures within two days! She had the support of influential newspapers, community leaders, and unions, and she was elected in 1920, becoming the first woman to be elected to a judgeship in the United States.
Then, in 1922, she ran for election to the Ohio Supreme Court. She was opposed to partisan elections for judges, so she ran on an independent ticket and did not ask either of the major parties for support. She won the election, becoming the first woman to serve on any state’s highest court. She was re-elected in 1928.
In 1934, FDR nominated her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and she was confirmed on March 23, becoming the first woman to serve as an Article III federal judge in the US. She remained on the Sixth Circuit for 32 years. She served as chief judge of the Sixth Circuit in 1958-59, making her the first woman to serve as chief judge of a federal circuit court of appeals.
She once said: “It’s so worth-while being a judge, because, if I make good, 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.” She was an advocate of justice and self-determination, saying that “Liberty cannot be caged into a charter or handed on ready-made to the next generation. Each generation must recreate liberty for its own times. Whether or not we establish freedom rests with ourselves.” And she believed, in her own words, that “[t]he attainment of justice is the highest human endeavor.”
She died in 1966 in Ohio at the age of 82.