Annie Virginia Stephens Coker ’24, J.D. ’29: California’s First African American Woman Attorney

In the early 20th century, Berkeley Law was considered a leader in legal education for women, as the school has admitted female students since its inception in 1894. However, the barriers women faced persisted, decades after the law school’s founding. Well into the 1960s, each Berkeley Law class included about only one or two women.

There was tremendous pressure for female law students to prove themselves. In the 1920s, it was common for female students to drop out if their grades were not extraordinary. In a time when sexism was rampant, many women felt pressure to outperform their male counterparts in order to even be seen as a qualified job candidate.

In a time when sexism was rampant, many women felt pressure to outperform their male counterparts in order to even be seen as a qualified job candidate.

Despite these hurdles, Annie Virginia Stephens Coker ’24, J.D. ’29 could not be deterred. She became the first Black woman to not only graduate from Berkeley Law, but also the first Black female attorney in California.

Annie Coker (then Annie Stephens) first attended Berkeley as an undergraduate and majored in legal studies. After graduating in 1924, Coker’s father encouraged her to attend Berkeley Law. She was admitted into a class of 47 students and was one of two women in her class. Coker graduated in 1929 and was admitted to the State Bar of California that same year, making her the first African American woman to do so.

Although Coker overcame the challenge of graduating from Berkeley Law as a woman in the 1920s, she still faced other obstacles as a person of color entering law. As reported by the Charles Houston Bar Association, a nonprofit comprised of legal practitioners who work to address the unique challenges facing the African American community, African American lawyers in the early 20th century faced systemic racism. Neither law firms nor the government would hire Black attorneys, so many set up their own private practices instead. Perhaps this was one reason why Coker moved to Virginia and established her practice there.

After nearly a decade of private practice, Coker returned to California in 1939 and began working at the State Office of Legislative Counsel in Sacramento. She began as a junior deputy legislative counsel and worked up to head of the Indexing Section, and was responsible for compiling all state codes, keeping them current, indexing all bills pending before the legislature, and providing legal opinions. According to her colleagues, Coker worked tirelessly until her retirement in 1966. After 27 years of public service, Coker received distinction as the attorney with the most longevity at the State Office Legislative Counsel.

Coker’s tenacity enabled her to become the first Black female attorney in California and pave the way for other women of color in law. At a time when there were barely two women in an entire class of students at Berkeley Law, and many dropped out, Coker persevered and became a pioneer.

Today, Berkeley Law classes look significantly different than those 100 years ago. The class of 2022 is comprised of 60% women and 40% people of color. Coker should be recognized not only for her contributions to the state of California, but also for inspiring future generations to challenge and work to end systemic barriers.


Image: Portrait of Virginia Stephens Coker, 1929, Stephens Family papers, MS 5, African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library. Oakland, California.

Comments

Did Ms. Coker attend Boalt School of Law ?
Thank you for sharing this history.
Such an inspiration! Have family members or others written a biography or recorded her own story of who inspired her or sustained her in the many struggles and challenges and indignities and hurts she may have faced? We could all learn from where she drew her resolve and strength. ( and hopefully maintained a joyful spirirt).
Such an inspiration! Have family members or others written a biography or recorded her own story of who inspired her or sustained her in the many struggles and challenges and indignities and hurts she may have faced? We could all learn from where she drew her resolve and strength. ( and hopefully maintained a joyful spirirt).
My husband was in the class of 1962. There was one woman and she became a judge! There may have been a second but no more. What an amazing woman you profiled. And the current statistics are incredible! Marianne Friedman
She attended BOALT HALL School of Law. Today’s students will lose out on that treasured education.
I received my undergrad degree from UC Berkeley in 1972, with a double-major in Psychology and Social Welfare. My Senior Social Welfare internship involved working at one of the Neighborhood Legal Services offices in Oakland; and the attorneys there — especially a young woman attorney who worked there — inspired me to apply to law school. I grew up in a working class family in Southern California, and was able to attend Berkeley thanks to the Cal Alumni Scholarship program and affordable student housing in the UC Co-op system. Up until I worked at my internship with Oakland Legal Services, I never even dreamed that I could become an attorney. I entered George Washington University National Law Center in Washington, DC in the Fall of 1973, and I graduated in May 1976, and became a member of the California Bar in 1977. A full 25% of the members of my law school class were women — a big increase from the few women who were admitted to Boalt Hall (and most law schools) in the early 1960’s, and a big step forward on the road to “parity” for women law students, with law school classes now comprised of 50% or more female students. I had a satisfying career, for many years, as a union attorney and legislative specialist in Washington, DC. We all must thank pioneers like Annie Stephens Coker — and the young female attorney at the Neighborhood Legal Services Office in Oakland (whose name I, sadly, cannot recall) — for blazing a trail and inspiring so many women of future generations! I, personally, also will be forever grateful for the excellent undergraduate education I received at UC Berkeley and the Alumni Scholarship which made my education and my career — and my love of life-long learning — possible!
It was never boalt hall school of law. The official name was the U of C graduate school of law. Boalt hall was the name of the building. We referred to the school as Boalt, but when I found my self testifying in some bar hearing in Maryland years ago, it soon became clear that the boalt name meant nothing; Berkeley was what was recognized.
From 1906, when Emmy Marcuse became the first woman to receive a law degree from Berkeley, there were always women in the law program. When in 1911 the Dept. of Jurisprudence moved into the Boalt Memorial Hall of Law, women were given their own cloakroom (but not a restroom!), and throughout the following decades there were almost always more than two women per class, usually five or six. (A complete list of all the women, arranged by class year, can be obtained from the law library.) Women were always in the minority, and while they faced many challenges, my research reveals they faced little hostility until the 1960s, when their numbers grew, and they began to present a challenge to some men in the class. In the early 1950s, for example, Peggy Hoyt was elected the president of her class all three years she was in the law school (and led a student board that was otherwise entirely male). Annie Stephens Coker’s chief achievement — and it was a great one — was overcoming the prejudice against her race, more than her gender. That she triumphed over a combination of the two is truly inspiring. William Benemann, ’71, MLS ‘75 Archivist Emeritus School of Law
All of this just points out how “sick” racism and sexism were and continue to be in America and in the world. In modern times we have its outgrowth in American leadership in the form of “Trump” who is neither lawyer or scholar. But, who was George C. Wallace, Jessie Helms, and George Washington for that matter. How else could today’s world exist without the centuries of the same malignant practices that have undergirded today’s systematic globalization of human indecency? Just think about it, the “founding fathers” created a constitution that mad racism and sexism “legal”…so what was the law school curriculum supposed to do except follow in the tradition of defacto white supremacy. If not for the foregoing, we would never have know such an awful system of exclusion, which but the way is even worse today because big money has bought intelligence to automate and disseminate the same exclusion on a global scale with the internet and technology as its platform for delivery and controls…its called the misuse of information, intelligence, and data….It’s the society we have inherited.
Thank you for sharing this story.

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