24. Taking It all the Way to the Supreme Court

Myra Bradwell developed a deep love of law but this was the late 1800s; there was no such thing as a female lawyer.

Undaunted, Mrs. Bradwell studied law on her own, founded the Chicago Law Review newspaper in 1868, and in 1869 she passed the Illinois law exam and applied for the bar. She even included a letter with her submission stating that women should have the rights to do anything a man can under the law. The fact that she was married worked against her. Under the common law doctrine of coverture, a married woman could not exist as a separate legal person so she would not be able to sign contracts with clients or even take on clients without her husband’s consent thus hindering her ability to practice law. Without the right to vote, women had no legal say in writing or changing the laws that governed them. She appealed her case to the Illinois Supreme Court and lost again but this time she was denied completely on the basis of sex.

The four main reasons for denying her the right to practice law were: There was no precedent for women practicing law. Some violent law cases might not be suitable for women to handle. They were worried about how many other women would want to be lawyers if they allowed Mrs. Bradwell a license. Finally, what would happen to the entire justice system if all these women started practicing law? The classic “slippery slope” argument. The reasons seem overly dramatic and silly today, but changes in society can cause a lot of anxiety for people.

Using the “equal protection” clause in the newly passed 14th Amendment, she appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court. At the U.S. Supreme Court, her attorney Senator Matthew H. Carpenter of Wisconsin made a cringe-worthy argument that women should have the right to practice law but not the right to vote. Universal suffrage was still a very fringe idea in the 1870s and Senator Carpenter felt the best chance to win was to argue for a small victory; they lost anyway. The Justices’ legal opinion in the case of Bradwell v. State of Illinois, ultimately ruling against Bradwell, was that “[t]he paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”

While her case was in the U.S. Supreme Court, Illinois passed a law that said no one could be denied the right to practice a profession on the basis of gender. As a result, the first woman to be accepted to the bar was Alta M. Hulett since she put in the first application after the law changed. Bradwell would have to resubmit her application to get her license; she didn’t feel the need to do so. She continued to publish the Chicago Law Review and practiced law without her official license. Eventually, the Illinois Supreme Court (1890) and the U.S. Supreme Court (1892) granted Myra Bradwell her license and legally dated the document from her first application in 1869 making her the first woman lawyer in America.

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