January 15, 2020

Nineteenth Amendment Centennial: Suffragists and Women in Practice

Suffragists and Women in Practice

By Katherine Mikkelson

The year 2019 marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Long before the amendment became a reality, women (and men) were fighting for its passage by making speeches; writing letters, pamphlets and editorials; hosting fundraisers; organizing demonstrations; picketing the White House; and, yes, even going to jail. This article highlights three trailblazing suffragists who became lawyers long before it was the norm for women to enter the profession.

Suffragists and
Women in Practic

Suffragists and Women in Practic

Myra Colby Bradwell

Myra Colby Bradwell was raised by her abolitionist parents, who moved their family from upstate New York to Elgin, Illinois, in 1843 so that they could help support a small network of Underground Railroad conductors. She attended the Elgin Seminary for Females and studied to be a teacher, one of the few jobs open to women at the time. 1

"Working for local government, I see firsthand the results of exercising and failing to exercise the right to vote. I think it is the most fundamental right we have as American citizens. Therefore, I am grateful the 19th Amendment gave me and all American women the right to vote."

Donna Y. Frazier, Caddo Parish Attorney

In 1851, she met James Bradwell, whose parents ran a farm. Her parents were opposed to their relationship because James did not come from money. Against her parents’ wishes, Myra and James went to Chicago and eloped.2

Bradwell’s husband began studying the law, and she started a small private school. Her husband then opened a law firm with Myra’s brother, Frank, which became quite successful. After several years, her husband was elected county probate judge. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Bradwell threw herself into relief efforts for sick and wounded soldiers, all while mourning the loss of two of her four children. These relief efforts, called sanitary fairs, raised vast amounts of cash, but, more importantly, they showed women that they were capable of networking, organizing and managing an enterprise outside of the home.3

"By the time U.S. women were finally guaranteed the vote, the world already had telephones, cars, airplanes, submarines, and a theory of general relativity; 48 continental states had joined the union; and the First World War had been fought. My grandmother, who recently turned 98, was born just one year after the 19th Amendment was officially adopted. Women’s suffrage is a shockingly modern phenomenon. We should not take it for granted."

Regina L. Nassen, Deputy Pima County Attorney, Tucson

As the war ended, Bradwell and some of her friends banded together to promote women’s rights, including establishing the Illinois Industrial School for Girls and joining the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Bradwell also began studying the law with her husband, hoping that she could be admitted into practice.4

In the meantime, Bradwell wanted to start her own publishing company, but women were prohibited by law from running businesses in their names. The Bradwells lobbied the Illinois Legislature, which passed a special act allowing Myra to establish the Chicago Legal News Company. The company supplied lawyers with legal forms, stationery and legal books. The company also published a weekly legal newspaper that printed decisions and Bradwell’s sometimes-biting editorials. The newspaper was an immediate success.5

"The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, guarantees equal rights to every American citizen. Throughout the history of our country, women have consistently played a vital role. Prior to its passage, this crucial part of our society was disenfranchised by the denial of the fundamental right to vote. Thankfully, this amendment allows the voices of women to be heard and for their impact to be felt in our country."

Albert Asphall, Assistant Corporation Counsel, City of Paterson, New Jersey

In 1869, Bradwell and feminist supporters organized the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association, and she became secretary. Although they were not successful in garnering support of a women’s suffrage amendment to the state constitution, they blocked a constitutional clause that would have prohibited women in Illinois from being elected or appointed to public office.6

Later that year, Bradwell took and passed the Illinois bar. However, the Illinois Supreme Court denied her application based on the “law of coverture,” which essentially said that husband and wife are one person and that the wife is protected or covered by the husband. Bradwell filed a petition for reconsideration and was again denied. This time, the court specifically stated that Bradwell’s gender was the reason for the denial.7

"Our Constitution’s preamble begins, “We the People of the United States. …” But “the People,” according to our 1787 Constitution, did not include women or African-Americans. This deliberate decision of our founders was hardly the perfect union establishing justice and liberty for all, as the preamble declared. Instead, it was fake news. Not for another 133 years would women gain the right to vote through fierce and courageous advocacy. This is not a time to celebrate the denial of suffrage for women upon our founding. This 100th anniversary is a time to redouble our effort to authentically seek a more perfect union with liberty and justice for every human being."

Ed Monahan, Former Kentucky Public Advocate

Undeterred, Bradwell appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bradwell v. Illinois was decided in 1873 and held that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment did not include the right to practice a profession, and thus a state was within its right to regulate professions.8

In 1872, James Bradwell decided to run for and was elected to the Illinois General Assembly. He (and Myra, who often wrote the legislation) wasted no time in helping pass a series of gender equity laws, including a statute that prohibited discrimination against women in any occupation other than the military, a law that allowed women to be appointed as notaries, and a law that gave women the right to run for school board positions.9

James Bradwell, a staunch supporter of his wife and a feminist in his own right, began a secret letter-writing campaign to the Illinois and U.S. Supreme Courts urging both to admit Myra to the practice. In 1890, the Illinois Supreme Court retroactively approved Bradwell’s original application to practice law. The Supreme Court followed two years later.10

Bradwell died of cancer in 1894.11

Crystal Eastman

Crystal Eastman was raised in the same region of upstate New York as Myra Bradwell; the region was sometimes called the “Burned-Over District,” so named due to the religious fervor associated with reform movements of the era. Her mother was one of the first women to be ordained as a Congregational Church minister.12

"The 19th Amendment’s enfranchisement of the female half of the population paved the way for the equal treatment of women under the law and was perhaps the most important milestone in U.S. history in eliminating gender discrimination."

Ira Sandron, Administrative Law Judge, National Labor Relations Board

Eastman received her bachelor’s degree from Vassar in 1903, then a master’s in sociology from Columbia a year later. She attended New York University School of Law and graduated in 1907.13

"The 19th Amendment gave me a profession as a lawyer. Female lawyers before the 19th Amendment were anomalies. Today, we take too much for granted. Ongoing inspirations are my grandfather’s willingness to display an “ERA Yes” bumper sticker on his car; a dear friend who helped achieve Alaskan statehood campaigning for the ERA because he owed it to his wife and mother; and my 90-plus–year–young aunts standing outside for a long time, waiting to vote."

Sharon Pandak, Partner, Greehan, Taves & Pandak

After law school, she investigated the causes of industrial work death and disability in Pittsburgh and wrote a book about it, Work Accidents and the Law.14

The governor of New York appointed her to the state’s newly formed Employers’ Liability Commission, where she wrote the nation’s first workers’ compensation law.15

In 1910, Eastman married Wallace Benedict, an insurance agent from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After moving to Wisconsin, Eastman sought work as a lawyer but was turned down by a firm and a state agency.16

"The 19th Amendment reminds me of my college class, “Women in Politics,” taught by former DNC chair Donna Brazile. I am reminded of the significant struggle women in our country have gone through to get us where we are today. The more we can learn about our past, the more we will be prepared for our future. I do not take it for granted when I exercise my right to vote. It is very liberating!"

Linda Santiago, Government Attorney

In the meantime, Eastman became more involved in the suffrage movement. In 1911, Eastman became campaign manager for the Wisconsin Political Equality League and cajoled her husband into serving as the director of the Wisconsin Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. This suffrage campaign was ultimately unsuccessful due to the beer brewing industry, which lobbied against it, claiming that giving women the right to vote would impact their business.17

"Bradwell wanted to start her own publishing company, but women were prohibited by law from running businesses in their names."

Eastman then turned her attention to national efforts and banded with Lucy Burns, Alice Paul and others. They asked the board of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to create a Congressional Union to organize demonstrations, petitions and parades. In 1913, after a trip to Europe with her husband, Eastman gave speeches, organized fundraising events, and lobbied members of Congress. She also organized demonstrations and picketing where many women were arrested and jailed.18

Let’s celebrate the 19th Amendment and all the strong women who worked toward its passage. We can honor their legacy by using our skills as lawyers to ensure equal access to the polls and that every vote counts. 

Paula Frederick, General, Counsel, State Bar of Georgia

When World War I broke out in 1914, Eastman was the primary staffer in two anti-war organizations, both of which she helped form: the Woman’s Peace Party and the American Union Against Militarism (AUAW). They had similar goals, including advocating for the United States to stay out of the war.19

Eastman divorced Benedict and married poet Walter Fuller in 1916. They had two children within a few years.

In 1917, Eastman and others wanted to form a civil liberties bureau to help combat the increased prosecution of conscientious objectors and those being prosecuted for espionage and sedition.

After the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920 (a Red scare, where U.S. Attorney General Alexander Palmer arrested thousands of people without warrants and held them for long periods without formal charges), the group reorganized and became the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Although it seems that Eastman never worked as an attorney for the ACLU, she is nevertheless considered one of its founding mothers.20

Our democracy’s efficacy is based upon full representation of all American citizens; without a representative form of government, we are left with despotic leaders addressing and moving their agenda without public redress or accountability. Upon the passage of the 19th Amendment and subsequent acts, our nation ensured the blessings of a democratic government, truly for the people and by the people. The bottom line is that the denial of an American citizen’s right to vote is inimical to the very foundation of our democratic form of government. Let us all celebrate the 19th Amendmentz as it is truly a manifestation of our values and norms, setting us apart from foreign governmental systems unrepresentative of their various constituencies. 

James Durant, Chief Counsel, Office of Science, U.s., Department of Energy

After the war, Eastman was the keynote speaker for the Woman’s Freedom Conference in 1919, which she spearheaded. She tried to rally other conference members to fight for a woman’s right to vote, which now seemed likely. However, many in the organization thought that she was too revolutionary, and they called for her ouster. She resigned and moved to London, where she wrote for a variety of publications.21

She died of a brain hemorrhage in 1927. She was only 47 years old.22

Arabella Babb

Mansfield Arabella Aurelia Babb (who was known as Belle at the time) was born in 1846 in Burlington, Iowa. She was raised by a single mother when her father was killed in a mining accident in California. Her father’s will specified that his children should be educated. Both Babb and her brother attended Iowa Wesleyan College and graduated in 1866, she as valedictorian and he as salutatorian.23

As the Civil War continued and many men left to fight, universities and colleges began hiring women as teachers. Babb taught English, history and political science for one year at the Des Moines Conference Seminary (now known as Simpson College).

She left to marry John Mansfield, her college sweetheart, who was a professor of natural history at Iowa Wesleyan.24

She then began teaching history and English at Iowa Wesleyan. Her brother studied law and opened a law firm. Encouraged by her husband, Mansfield began studying as an apprentice under her brother. In 1869, she took and passed the bar exam even though the Iowa Code specified that it was only open to white males at least 21 years of age.25

The bar examiners highly recommended her, writing,

Your committee takes unusual pleasure in recommending the admission of Mrs. Mansfield, not only because she is the first lady who has applied for this authority in the state, but because in her examination she has given the very best rebuke possible to the imputation that ladies cannot qualify for the practice of law.26

When Mansfield was denied admittance based upon her gender, she appealed, challenging the state law. Judge Francis Springer creatively interpreted the Iowa code provision, stating that “the affirmative declaration that male persons may be admitted, is not an implied denial to the rights of females.”27

Most women exercise the right to vote in a more prudent way than men. I’m hoping they come out in droves in 2020. 

Edwin L. Felter, Jr., Senior, Administrative Law Judge, Office Of Administrative Courts, Denver

Mansfield went on to receive an MA as well as a BA in law at Iowa Wesleyan. She taught English literature and also toured Europe in 1872 and 1873 to help her husband with a new science curriculum that he was developing for the school.28

The Mansfields were active supporters of women’s right to vote. Mansfield was the permanent secretary of the first Iowa Women’s Rights Convention. In 1870 she was elected president of the Henry County Woman Suffrage Association. Her husband was elected secretary.29

John Mansfield accepted a teaching position at Asbury University (now known as DePauw University) in Indiana, and the couple relocated there. Her husband suffered a nervous breakdown in 1884 and went to California to recuperate. Mansfield continued to work to support herself and her husband, both teaching at Iowa Wesleyan and doing public lectures. After her husband died two years later, Mansfield returned to DePauw University and held a number of administrative roles.30

What does the 19th Amendment mean to me? Taking my 89-year-old mother, who was on ox-ygen, to vote early at a rural Minnesota county courthouse when a female presidential candi-date was on the ballot.

Greg Brooker, Assistant U.s. Attorney, District of Minnesota

Mansfield died in 1911, nine years before women earned the right to vote.31

Conclusion

These suffragists fought for years to gain the right for women to vote at a time in our country’s history when many Americans were opposed to and harbored hostile opinions of this effort. Not only did these women fight the good fight for women’s enfranchisement, they also paved the way for other women to enter the practice of law.

Endnotes

  1. 1. Elizabeth Wheaton, Myra Bradwell:
    First Woman Lawyer 11–16 (Morgan
    Reynolds 1997).
  2. Id. at 17–18.
  3. Id. at 20–23.
  4. Id. at 25–28.
  5. Id. at 28–30.
  6. Id. at 33–35.
  7. Id. at 37–40.
  8. 83 U.S. 130 (1837).
  9. Wheaton, supra note 1, at 54.
  10. Id. at 86–87.
  11. Id. at 87.
  12. Sylvia A. Law, Crystal Eastman: Organizer
    for Women’s Rights, Peace, and Civil Liberties
    in the 1910s, 28 Val. U. L. Rev. 1305, 1306
    (1994).
  13. Id. at 1306.
  14. Crystal Eastman: A Short but Full Life
    of a Workplace Safety Pioneer, Indiana
    University of Pennsylvania, https://web.
    archive.org/web/20100608024916/https://
    www.iup.edu/page.aspx?id=60999 (last visited
    Oct. 27, 2019).
  15. Law, supra note 12, at 1307.
  16. Id. at 1308.
  17. Id. at 1311–13.
  18. Id. at 1314–17.
  19. Id. at 1320–21.
  20. Id. at 1322–25.
  21. Id. at 1325–26.
  22. Id. at 1326.
  23. Donald E. Young, Mansfield, Arabella
    “Belle” Babb, Biographical Dictionary
    of Iowa (Oct. 27, 2019), available at http://
    uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.
    aspx?id=249.
  24. Id.
  25. Diane Langton, Time Machine:
    ‘Petticoats at the Bar’ as Nation’s First
    Female Lawyer Was Iowan, Gazette
    (Apr. 16, 2018), www.thegazette.com/
    subject/news/archive/time-machine/
    time-machine-petticoats-at-the-bar-as-nationsfirst-
    female-lawyer-was-an-iowan-20180416.
  26. Id.
  27. Young, supra note 23.
  28. Id.
  29. Id.
  30. Langton, supra note 25.
  31. Id.

 

I have mixed feelings when I think about the 19th Amendment. I feel lucky to live in a country that provides so much opportunity and promise for women relative to other places in the world. At the same time, I feel sad that it took such a struggle to gain such a basic right. I also feel sad that we are not closer to gender equality after such a long time. I try to remember that progress can be slow and uneven and stay thankful for the strides we have taken as a country.

Susan Burke, Minnesota State District Court Judge

Katherine Mikkelson

Author

Katherine Mikkelson is the Division’s associate director. She is a former federal agency attorney. The thoughts expressed by Division members are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of their agency or organization.

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