Women's Work in Legal Aid


By Leslie E. John, partner at Ballard Spahr LLP, and President of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation. 

March is Women’s History Month, and 2020 marks the 100th year since the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women in the United States the right to vote.

2020 also marks the 137th year since Caroline Burnham Kilgore became the first woman to practice law in Philadelphia. Kilgore’s path to becoming an attorney was not easy – she was denied admission to the University of Pennsylvania of Law School for ten years before she was allowed to enroll, but she persevered and eventually became the first female student admitted to the school.

Women like Caroline Burnham Kilgore, Sadie Alexander, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Norma Shapiro, have paved the way for women in our legal community. According to the American Bar Association, women currently comprise 38% of the legal profession, a stark difference from 1883, but still a long way from parity.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we honor our nonprofit partners who advocate for the rights of women in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania.

Established in 1974, Women’s Law Project (WLP) is the only public interest law center in Pennsylvania dedicated to the rights of women and girls. Through litigation, policy advocacy, and community education, WLP has been a leading voice for the many inter-related legal issues that affect women across the city and the Commonwealth. Women’s Law Project contributed to  an equal pay victory earlier this year when the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a Philadelphia City Council ban on inquiries about a job applicant’s prior pay to set future pay. The ban was initially passed at the end of 2016 and is meant to protect women and people of color from wage inequity.

Women Against Abuse (WAA) is Philadelphia’s leading domestic violence advocate and service provider and one of the largest domestic violence agencies in the country. WAA has six core services that represent a continuum of care for victims, including one of the first legal centers in the country dedicated to survivors of domestic violence. In 2019, WAA’s Legal Center aided over 3,000 clients through attorney representation and court advocacy.  

Formerly Women Organized Against Rape, WOAR: Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence, strives to end sexual violence through specialized treatment services, education programs, and advocacy for the rights of victims. It is distinguished as one of the oldest rape crisis centers in the country and is still Philadelphia’s only rape crisis center. Their 24-hour hotline gets thousands of calls every year and connects those callers to necessary services at no cost.

In addition to these three incredible organizations, 31 of our nonprofits partners have women in prominent leadership roles, including serving as Executive Director.

The Philadelphia Bar Foundation is proud to support and highlight the monumental work being done by these women during Women’s History Month. I do not doubt that Caroline Burnham Kilgore would be proud of the progress that women have made in our legal profession and in legal aid today.  I also have no doubt that she would urge all of to do more to achieve gender equity in our profession and society.