Tabitha Anne Holton (1854-1886), the first woman licensed to practice law in North Carolina, was born near Jamestown in Guilford County, the daughter of a Methodist minister. Three of her brothers were attorneys. One of them, Eugene, was a prominent Republican political leader. Tabitha Holton, who never married, is said to have been well educated and to have gained her training in the law from having tutored her brothers.
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In January 1878 she traveled with her brother Samuel to Raleigh to take the bar examination administered by the North Carolina Supreme Court. A question immediately arose over the power of the Court to admit a woman to the bar. She was advised to appear with counsel and the following day was represented by an old family friend, Albion W. Tourgee, relished the chance to argue her case up against an old nemesis, former state Supreme Court Justice and University of North Carolina professor William H. Battle. The argument was made that a southern lady should not be “permitted to sully her sweetness by breathing the pestiferous air of the courtroom.” Tourgee carried the day and Miss Holton was permitted to take the exam which she passed. The incident drew the attention of the state press. She claimed to have suffered “the horrors of a thousand deaths” by being made the subject of such attention. The Greensborough Patriot congratulated her and editorialized “Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s slaves or playthings!”
Tabitha Holton was sworn as an attorney in Greensboro. There is little evidence that she practiced law between 1878 and her death in 1886. Memory F. Mitchell, author of a biographical sketch, concluded that she “did research and office work, leaving courtroom appearances to the men.” By 1880 her brother Samuel had relocated his practice to Surry County and Tabitha, according to family tradition, lived in his house across from the courthouse in Dobson. The siblings advertised their services as attorneys-at-law in a local newspaper in 1881 but county court records include only a single instance where Miss Holton appeared in court. Tabitha Holton died at age thirty-two and is buried in the cemetery at Springfield Friends Meeting in High Point.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, III (1988)—sketch by Memory F. Mitchell
Raleigh Observer, January 10, 1878
Greensborough Patriot, January 16, 1878
Otto Olsen, Carpetbagger’s Crusade: The Life of Albion Winegar Tourgee (1965)
H. G. Jones, North Carolina Illustrated (1983)
Surry County Deeds and Court Minutes, North Carolina State Archives