October 31, 2017 Practice Points

Myra Bradwell: The First Woman Admitted to the Illinois Bar

By Leonard Wills

Myra Bradwell, born in Manchester, Vermont in 1831, became the first woman admitted to the bar in Illinois. During her life, she challenged the status quo of the legal profession and advocated for women's rights and suffrage.

In 1868, she launched the newspaper, the Chicago Legal News which became the first legal publication edited by a woman. The newspaper eventually "became the official medium for the publication of all court records in Illinois, and become the most widely circulated legal newspaper in the nation." She also used the newspaper as a platform to advocate for women's rights.

Less than a year later, in 1869, Bradwell sat for and passed the Illinois bar exam. The Illinois Supreme Court, however, denied her admission to the bar because as a woman she could not enter into contracts without her husband's consent. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that "as a married woman" Bradwell "would be bound neither by her express contracts nor by those implied contracts which it is the policy of the law to create between attorney and client." The court reasoned that when the legislature enacted the laws of granting licenses to practice law, it did not intend to extend the privilege to women.

The court based its holding on the common law doctrine known as coverture. Coverture prohibited a married woman from making legal decisions or acting without the consent of her husband. Thus, as a married woman, Bradwell could not have a separate legal existence distinct from her husband. The Illinois Supreme Court ruling, however, did not answer the question on whether prohibiting women to practice law would promote the proper administration of justice, and the general well-being of society.

Myra appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. The Court, unfortunately, upheld the decision of the Illinois State Court.

By 1869, however, several states began to abandon the doctrine of coverture and enacted statutes that allowed married women to enter contracts without the consent of their husbands. In 1872, for instance, the Illinois legislature passed a law that stated, "No person shall be precluded or debarred from any occupation, profession, or employment (except military) on account of sex."

Toward the end of her life, in 1890, the Supreme Court of Illinois finally granted Bradwell her license to practice law, and in 1892 the U.S. Supreme Court granted her license as well. Both courts granted her license munc pro tunc ("now for then"). Her official documents were dated 1869, the original year Bradwell applied. These court actions made her the first woman lawyer in Illinois. Unfortunately, Bradwell died from cancer in 1894, only two years after both courts granted her license to practice law.

During her life, Myra Bradwell challenged the status quo and used her platform to advocate for women's rights. In 1994, Bradwell was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Leonard Wills is a presidential management fellow in Washington, D.C.