About Judge Jane Bolin

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April 11, 1908

Jane Bolin is born

Jane Bolin was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, to a father of both American Indian and African American descent and a mother who immigrated from the British Isles.

1916

Jane's Formative Years

Jane’s mother died when she was just 8 years old. Jane grew up deeply admiring her father, Gaius C. Bolin, who was the first Black student to graduate from Williams College, owned his own legal practice, and was the first Black president of the Dutchess County Bar Association.

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1917

A Woman Takes Federal Office

Jeannette Pickering Rankin, an American politician and women's rights advocate, becomes the first woman to hold federal office in the United States when she is sworn in to the House of Representatives.

1920

Women's Suffrage

The Nineteenth Amendment is ratified, granting women the right to vote. It reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. ”

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1924

Leading the Way

Jane Bolin enrolled in Wellesley College in Massachusetts where she would be just one of two Black students in her year.

1928

Legal Career Aspirations

Despite frequent instances of blatant racism, Jane graduated as one of the top 20 students in her class. She was interested in following in her father’s footsteps and attending law school, but a career counselor at Wellesley insisted that this feat would be nearly impossible due to her race and gender. Nevertheless, Bolin would go on to attend Yale Law School where she was one of three women in her class and the only Black student.

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1931

Making History

Bolin became the first Black woman to receive a law degree from Yale. After earning her J.D. and passing the New York state bar exam, Bolin practiced law with her father in Poughkeepsie.

1939

America's First Black Female Judge

At just 31 years old, she became the first Black female judge in the United States with her appointment to the New York City Domestic Relations Court (renamed to the Family Court in 1962). Bolin was the only Black female judge in America for nearly twenty years after her initial appointment. Her cases with the Family Court typically involved battered spouses, neglected children, juvenile crimes, and paternity disputes. She famously chose not to wear judicial robes while in court in order to make the children involved in her cases feel more comfortable.

 
Throughout her career as a judge, she remained outspoken on civil rights issues, children’s education, and women’s rights. Notably, as a family court judge, Bolin put an end to the long-standing practices of assigning probation officers based on race and placing children with childcare agencies based on ethnicity. She served as a legal advisor for the National Council of Negro Women and served on boards for both the NAACP and the Child Welfare League. Whenever she visited her hometown of Poughkeepsie, she openly criticized its ongoing segregation of hospitals, local government, and schools.  

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1955

The First Lady of Civil Rights

On December 1, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks rejected a bus driver's order to relinquish her seat to a white passenger. She went on to organize and collaborate with civil rights leaders, including Edgar Nixon, president of the local chapter of the NAACP; and Martin Luther King Jr., a new minister in Montgomery who gained national prominence in the civil rights movement and went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

1963

Closing the Gender Pay Gap

On June 10, John F. Kennedy signs into law the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The bill amended the Fair Labor Standards Act and aimed at abolishing wage disparity based on gender.

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1964

Prohibiting Unequal Rights

The Civil Rights Act is passed on July 2.  The law is a landmark civil rights and labor law in that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and later sexual orientation and gender identity.

1973

The Right to Choose

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, is decided.  The landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman's liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.

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1978

A Legacy Established

Bolin remained a family court judge for 40 years until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. Even after her retirement, Bolin continued to volunteer her time as a reading instructor for New York City public schools and was appointed to the New York State Board of Regents.

1981

Women Join the Highest Court

History is made when Sandra Day O'Connor becomes the first woman to serve as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court.

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January 8, 2017

The Passing of a Legend

Bolin passed away at age 98. Bolin’s legacy contributed to that of other groundbreaking jurists such as Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman appointed to the federal judiciary and a civil rights hero who cited Bolin as a source of inspiration for her career. Judge Motley, commenting on Bolin’s retirement, said “When I thereafter met you, I then knew how a lady judge should comport herself.”

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