First Women Lawyers

About the Women's Bar Association of Illinois

History: First Women Lawyers in Illinois

Myra Bradwell
Myra Bradwell was a schoolteacher from Vermont who married James B. Bradwell, a lawyer.  She had begun to study law in her husband’s Chicago office, intending merely to assist him in his law practice.  As her studies progressed, she decided that she would also become a licensed attorney.  This quest was interrupted temporarily by the Civil War, during which Bradwell worked for passage of laws granting women fair property rights, the right to serve on juries and urging the admission of women to university law departments.

Bradwell also served as Secretary of the Illinois Women’s Suffrage Association, whose goal it was to ensure that Illinois become the first state to permit women to vote.  Through all the turmoil, she steadfastly worked toward her goal of becoming an attorney.

In 1869, Bradwell passed the bar examination and was certified to the state Supreme Court for admission to the bar.  Had this been permitted, she should have been one of the first two women lawyers in the United States.  However, the Illinois State Supreme Court denied her application.  Its reason was that her “married condition” constituted a “disability” which impaired her ability to keep a client’s confidence.  That year, Iowa admitted Belle A. Mansfield, who became the first women in America admitted to the bar.  Bradwell immediately requested the Illinois Supreme Court to reconsider.  The Chief Justice, in an opinion indicating general approval for women’s rights, harshly affirmed the original denial.  Not only would Bradwell’s admission to the bar be denied because she was a married women, ruled the Court, it would be denied because she was a woman.  The Court reasoned that woman had not been known as attorneys at common law.  Women might have a detrimental effect upon the administration of justice.  Bradwell promptly filed a writ of error to the United States Supreme Court.  It affirmed, ruling that admission to the bar was not a privilege belonging to citizens of the United States which individual states were prohibited from abridging.  The Court noted that “the law of the Creator” had placed limits on the functions of womanhood.  There was one dissent.  Bradwell made no subsequent attempts to attain admission to the bar.  Instead, she devoted her time to legal reform, women’s rights, encouraging other aspiring female attorneys, and working on the formation of what would eventually be known as the Chicago Bar Association.

In 1868, Bradwell founded and acted as the publisher, manager, and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Legal News, a weekly publication designed to provide up-to-date case law and legal information to lawyers and also to improve everything connected with the practice of law In 1901, that publication announced with pride and pleasure that “Illinois had more women lawyers than any state in the world.”  By Bradwell’s death, she had edited approximately 1300 issues of Chicago Legal News.

In 1872, Bradwell along with Alta Hulett and Ada Kepley drafted legislation that no person be barred from any occupation, profession or employment, except military, on account of sex; said legislation passed.

In 1882, Bessie Bradwell, Myra’s daughter, graduated from Northwestern School of Law.  Eight years later, in 1990, the Illinois Supreme Court, on its own motion, granted Myra Bradwell a law license on her original application filed in 1869, some 21 years before.  Four years later, Bradwell died of Cancer.  Two years later, the United States Supreme Court admitted her.  Although she never practiced law, Myra Bradwell was perhaps Illinois’ most outstanding attorney.

 

 

Ada Miser Kepley
In 1870, Ada Miser Kepley was the first woman to graduate law school in the United States.  She attended Chicago University Law School, predecessor to Union College of Law, later known as Northwestern University School of Law.  But Illinois refused to admit her to the bar.  Nevertheless, in 1870, while Bradwell’s request for admission to the Illinois bar was pending, a courageous judge in Effingham permitted Kepley to practice in his court.  He stated that although the Illinois Supreme Court had refused to license a woman, he believed Kepley’s motion was proper and in accordance with the spirit of the age.  Kepley was instrumental in drafting legislation which was enacted in 1872  that would prohibit sex discrimination in employment and give women access to the legal profession.  In 1881, Kepley was admitted to the bar.

Alta Hulett
In 1871, Alta Hulett of Rockford who had passed the bar examination at age 18 and studied in a Rockford law office, petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court for admission to the bar.  She was rejected.  She, with Myra Bradwell and Ada Miser Kepley’s help, drafted legislation which would prohibit sex discrimination in employment and give women access to the legal profession.  With the help and encouragement of Myra Bradwell and the Chicago Legal News, the bill passed in March of 1872.  It was the first law in the United States prohibiting sex discrimination in employment.  On Hulett's 19th birthday, June 4, 1873, Illinois admitted her as its first woman lawyer.  Tragically, she died in 1877.

 

Continue to Charter Members >>