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Myra Bradwell

The following is a guest post by Jim Martin, Senior Legal Information Analyst at the Law Library of Congress.

The city of Chicago has produced many leaders in the American bar.  Among one of the most influential attorneys from Chicago was Myra Bradwell, a prominent social reformer from the later third of the 19th century.  Although she was an acknowledged commentator on the legal developments of her day and a passionate campaigner for the reform of the legal and the criminal justice systems, she had to wait over 20 years from her initial application in 1868 to be admitted to the practice of law in Illinois.

Myra Bradwell was born Myra Colby in Vermont in 1831, and in 1843 she and her parents relocated to Cook County, Illinois.  In 1852, she married James Bradwell.  After James was admitted to the bar in 1854 she began clerking in his law office.  In 1868 she launched a legal newspaper, the Chicago Legal News, which was the first legal publication edited by a woman.  Shortly after, Myra passed an examination on law administered to her by two local judges.  Following the procedures of the day her application was then submitted to the  Illinois Supreme Court, which denied the application on the grounds that as a married woman under the common law of Illinois she could not be held responsible for any contracts into which she might enter.  This common law doctrine was known as coverture.  However by 1869 several states had moved away from this doctrine and adopted statutes allowing married women to enter into contracts and hold property without the consent of their husbands.

Bradwell sought to overturn this decision by submitting a brief arguing that coverture should not act as a hindrance to her admission to the practice of law since the Illinois legislature and the Illinois Supreme Court had previously reduced the doctrine by removing its application to property that a married woman held in her own name.  Although the Illinois Supreme Court acknowledged the great ability of Bradwell’s arguments it continued to feel that a complete repeal of the doctrine had not occurred in Illinois and that coverture continued to apply to contracts for professional services.  The court decided that the common law of the state had not advanced sufficiently to allow for the admission of women to the practice of law.  In its opinion the court invited Bradwell to petition the legislature to seek a redress of her grievances.

Instead Bradwell decided to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States on the grounds that the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court was a violation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the recently ratified Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Although the initial writ of error was filed in December of 1871 the Supreme Court did not issue an opinion until 1873 when a majority voted to uphold the opinion of the Illinois Supreme Court on the grounds that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not cover the right to practice a profession.  Moreover, as the words of Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley stated, the court thought that women were by Nature and God unsuited to a professional occupation:

The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many occupations of civil life….The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign office of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. 83 U.S. 130 at 141.

Subsequently the Illinois legislature did adopt legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender in hiring or the practice of a profession.  In the meantime, Bradwell continued to campaign actively for the improvement of the status of women in society.  She became a prominent supporter of female suffrage and civil reform.  She was an associate of Susan B. Anthony in seeking the right of women to vote, although the two differed over the tactics to be pursued in gaining access to the ballot.  In 1891, Myra Bradwell was diagnosed with cancer.  She had never resubmitted her application for admission to practice law to the Illinois Supreme Court but after the announcement of her illness the Court voluntarily admitted her.  She died in Chicago in 1894, shortly after her 63rd birthday.

One Comment

  1. Otto Vervaart
    April 3, 2012 at 2:17 am

    Thanks for this nteresting post! At the Women’s Legal History Project of Stanford Law School you can find a summary sketch of Myra Bradwell’s life and a rich selection of links to studies about her, see http://wlh.law.stanford.edu/biography_search/biopage/?woman_lawyer_id=10108.

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