Tuesday, August 7, 2007


To do well in business, as well as in life, persistence is a virtue. One who certainly exhibited that quality was Myra Colby Bradwell, who was the first female lawyer in Illinois, and perhaps in America. I'm not sure who was the first male lawyer, but I'm fairly certain it wasn't Abraham Lincoln. As a lawyer myself and a graduate of the Myra Bradwell School in Chicago (and the 8th grade spelling champ there), I developed an interest in her story.

She was born in 1831 in Vermont and moved with her family to Schaumburg, IL, when she was 12, a long time before anyone even dreamed of Schaumburg's Woodfield Mall. She attended finishing school in Kenosha, WI and completed her formal education at the Elgin (Illinois) Female Seminary. In 1852, she married James Bradwell who was a law student and later a successful lawyer and state legislator. While James was a law student, Myra began to study his law books and after he was admitted to the bar, Myra apprenticed as a lawyer in his office. Keep in mind that there were no law schools at that time.

Her legal training moved forward slowly because, during those years, she had 4 children, two of whom died in infancy. She helped wounded soldiers during the Civil War, and she founded the Chicago Legal News in 1868, which became the most widely circulated legal newspaper in the U.S. for many years. Mrs. Bradwell published information about court opinions, laws and ordinances, and was frequently cited in court cases. The newspaper also promoted women's suffrage and employment for female lawyers. She supported the 1869 bill which gave married women the right to retain their own wages and protect the rights of widows.

In 1869, she took and passed (with honors) the Illinois Bar Exam, and her qualifications were approved by a prominent judge and a states attorney, both of whom encouraged her to obtain her law license.

This is where it gets good. Shortly thereafter, she applied for admission to the bar to practice law, but she was turned down by the Illinois Supreme Court, not for being a woman, but because she was a married woman. At that time, women were required to be available to their husbands at all times, and the court was concerned that since she would be held responsible for her actions, she could be arrested and thus would not be available to her husband. It was not recorded whether the Supreme Court consulted her husband prior to making that determination.

Myra Bradwell was a determined woman, and she appealed. On appeal, she was denied admission to practice law because she was a woman, and the court gave four reasons, and this is incredible: First, the Illinois legislature was silent about women entering the legal profession; thus the court concluded that women would not be allowed to practice law. Second, the state worried about "opening the floodgates"--if one woman was allowed to hold a civil office, all civil offices would be filled with women. Third, some of the brutal cases would not be appropriate for a woman. And finally, the state was worried about the effect (negative, presumably) women would have on the administration of justice.

Mrs. Bradwell did not give up, and she took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in the infamous case of Bradwell vs. Illinois. Her attorney was the well regarded Senator Matthew Carpenter of Wisconsin who argued that women had the right to the law profession but not the right to vote. (Well you can't have everything.) Justice Joseph Bradley wrote the opinion denying Mrs. Bradwell the right to practice law in one of the all time low points in Supreme Court history.

"The civil law, as well as nature itself has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman's protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupantions of civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as to which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say the identity, of interests and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea for a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband...for these reasons I think the laws of Illinois now complained of are not obnoxious to the charge of any abridging any of the privileges and immunities of cities of the United States."

Justice Bradley threw in some other zingers in the opinion like contrasting "those energies and responsibilities and that decision and firmness which...predominate in the sterner sex" with "the peculiar characteristics, destiny and mission of women." which are "to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator."

And many people were worried about Clarence Thomas when he was appointed to the Supreme Court.

While some of my fellow (male) lawyers (and non-lawyers) may agree with the sentiments of that decision, ultimately Illinois did change its laws to allow women to practice law. The first woman admitted to the Bar was Mrs. Bradwell's friend and colleague, Alta Hulett in 1872. In 1890, Mrs. Bradwell, who felt that she had already prevailed, finally reapplied and was admitted to the Illinois Bar, nunc pro tunc to 1869, thus making her officially the first female lawyer in Illinois. She was later admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court, but unfortunately, she did not live long to enjoy the privilege, as she died in 1894. Her daughter, Bessie Bradwell Helmer became a lawyer and continued to publish the Chicago Legal News.

In its 1894 tribute to Mrs. Bradwell, the Chicago Legal News stated, "The future historian will accord her the breaking of the chain that bound women to a life of household drudgery. She opened the door of the professions to her sex and compelled lawmakers and judges as well, to proclaim that it was not a crime to be born a woman."

So ladies, if you think the obstacles are high, remember Myra Bradwell's story, and keep pushing forward.




Anonymous Lahle Wolfe said...

Myra Bradwell certainly deserves recognition for her many remarkable contributions to women's rights, and her success as a business woman. But she was not the first female lawyer in the United States. Miss Phoebe Couzins was the first women attorney in the U.S., as well as the first woman U.S. Marshall. She died in 1913, impoverished and all but forgotten.

April 19, 2008 at 12:19 PM  

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