February 12, 2015

On Books: Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers

Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers
286 pages
Jill Norgren (New York University Press 2013)

Coverture is a term that isn’t used much anymore in the United States, but it is important to remember that these married women’s property laws and other concerns were very real for women lawyers at the turn of the 20th century. Women with “radical ambition” strove, with varying degrees of success, to be admitted to law schools and local, state, and federal bars and to practice law and hold political office in an era when women did not even have the right to vote. As Jill Norgren succinctly puts it, “men controlled the profession’s knowledge base, credentialing, client referral system, and networking.”

Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers tells the stories of eight tenacious women from the East to the West Coasts who struggled for admission to the legal profession. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and temperance movements all played a part in this history. The “sisters in law” were not just refused law school admission, apprenticeships, jobs, and bar admissions for paternalistic reasons, but they were also actively scorned by some neighbors, family, politicians, and fellow lawyers and judges. These early, individual struggles paved the way for more women lawyers, Portia clubs, and later the National Association of Women Lawyers. This series of biographical sketches will remind women and men alike why they wanted to join the profession and its role in this country’s history and government.