May 23, 1889 – Birthdate of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, “The First Lady of Law”

On this date, Mabel Walker was born in Woodsdale, Kansas. After her marriage, she studied for her law degree at the University of Southern California, receiving her degree in 1916.

Mabel Willebrandt

Mabel Willebrandt

A trailblazer in every way, during her last semester of law school in Los Angeles, Willebrandt began doing pro bono work in the police courts while still teaching full-time. Ultimately she argued 2,000 cases as the city’s first female public defender, handling mostly cases of prostitution. Her efforts led courts to permit the testimony of both men and women. She also campaigned successfully for the enactment of a revised community property statute at the state level. After graduating, she opened a practice in downtown Los Angeles, along with Fred Horowitz, who later built the Chateau Marmont.

During World War I, Willebrandt served as head of the Legal Advisory Board for draft cases in Los Angeles. Her work there was so highly regarded that a number of prominent men recommended her for the post of Assistant Attorney General in the Warren G. Harding administration.

She was the highest-ranking woman in the federal government at the time and first woman in charge of the Tax Division. Among her duties, Willebrandt handled matters relating to the enforcement of the 18th Amendment.

Mabel Willenbrandt taking the oath of office as U.S. Asst. Attorney General

Mabel Willenbrandt taking the oath of office as U.S. Asst. Attorney General

According to the annual report of the U.S. Attorney General, Willebrandt’s office prosecuted 48,734 Prohibition-related cases from June 1924 to June 1925, of which 39,072 resulted in convictions. She acquired the sobriquet “Prohibition Portia.” So seriously did she take her work that the press also christened her “Deborah of the Drys” and “Mrs. Firebrand” for her diligence.

In addition, Willebrandt submitted 278 cases of certiorari to the Supreme Court regarding the defense, clarification and enforcement of the Prohibition Amendment and the Volstead Act. She also argued more than 40 cases before the Supreme Court.

Later in life, she became a counsel of California Fruit Industries, and received several honorary doctorates. She died in Riverside, California, on April 6, 1963.

Of her choice of a career she once said:

I didn’t care much for law when I was young. I loved science and medicine and wanted a career in either field. Later, when I learned I would have to work my way through college, I found I could teach and study law at the same time. I couldn’t have done that with a medical course. I have partially made up for that disappointment by treating law as a science.”

Mabel Willebrandt on the cover of Time Magazine, August 26, 1929

Mabel Willebrandt on the cover of Time Magazine, August 26, 1929


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