First Woman Lawyer, Myra Colby Bradwell
Born in 1831, she married James Bradwell, a law student who was accepted to the bar in 1854. At that time one could learn law by attending law school or studying it under the supervision of a practicing attorney.
Myra Colby Bradwell was the first woman lawyer in Illinois.
Since women were prohibited from attending law school, Bradwell studied law as an apprentice in her husband’s office. At age 38 she passed the Illinois bar examination with high honors. However, the Illinois Supreme Court denied her admission to the bar because she was a married woman.
She took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in 1873 the high court denied Bradwell on account of her sex. Meanwhile, she published a weekly newspaper called the “Chicago Legal News” which she started in 1868. Besides reporting and commenting on proposed legislation, legal opinions and news, she used the paper to support women’s rights and other progressive movements.
One of her achievements was drafting and successfully lobbying for passage of the Illinois Married Woman’s Property Act of 1869 which permitted women to own property and control their own earnings. In 1872 Illinois passed a bill that granted freedom of occupational choice to both male and female citizens. But Bradwell decided she would not beg for admission to the bar again. She continued her work as publisher of “Chicago Legal News.”
Twenty years after her application (1890) the Illinois Supreme Court admitted her to the bar based on her original documents of 1869. A few years later the U.S. Supreme Court granted her license to practice law. She died in 1894 and is buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.
Read about “From Bonnets to Law Briefs: A Journey of Chicago Women in Law.” the play that recognized Bradwell and other early lawyers.
© 2018—Working Women's History Project
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