September 01, 2013

Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers, by Jill Norgren NYU Press, April 15, 2013

Marjorie G. Jones

The title of Jill Norgren’s Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers is somewhat misleading because really her book is about so much more. Rather than a mere compilation of biographies of several exceptional women, what Norgren has constructed instead is a complex contextual panorama, stretching from coast to coast, of post–Civil War America.

Among the many changes resulting from the transformation from a rural to an industrial society was the emergence of professional law schools that gradually replaced the traditional training of lawyers by having them “read” in the offices of practicing attorneys before sitting for the bar. Women still faced daunting obstacles, and those in the more progressive West had a somewhat easier task than women in the tradition-bound East. However, this development profoundly enhanced opportunities for women to become attorneys, since the emergence of state-certified law schools meant that women could bypass prevailing patriarchal attitudes of private practitioners who thought the law an unladylike profession.

Naively, until reading Rebels, I considered myself a pioneer of sorts. In the 1960s, as one of only a handful of women in my class at Rutgers Law School, where a very young Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of only two women professors, routinely my female classmates and I were subjected to harassment by male classmates and other professors, who frequently called on us to present salacious cases and seemed to go out of their way to embarrass and humiliate us. Yet any discomfort we experienced then pales in comparison to that experienced by courageous women who wanted to become lawyers in the nineteenth century. As Norgren observes, in that century, women had to “roll out a bit of cheek” to have their voices (and cases) heard. The overarching theme of her book is the struggle each and every woman she profiles had to overcome to become an attorney.

A political scientist with a complementary and competent understanding of the law, Norgren recounts their biographies while exploring the political and legal strategies employed by aspiring women attorneys weighing whether the legislative or judicial route would be more effective in changing discriminatory policies regarding admission to law school and membership to the bar. As Norgren reveals, and few observers realize this even today, whether the Fourteenth Amendment applied to women was an unsettled legal question of the times. In the words of the Amendment, were women born and naturalized in the United States “citizens” with full and equal rights and privileges?

As Norgren explains, the test case of Bradwell v. Illinois, wherein Myra Bradwell, who had passed the Illinois bar exam with high honors, was denied admission to the state bar, took the issue to the U. S. Supreme Court, where she lost her appeal by a vote of 8–1. In a narrow reading, the Court held that the granting of licenses was a state issue not encompassed by the Fourteenth Amendment, leaving women attorneys, along with women seeking suffrage, no other option than to continue their struggles state by state. In an interesting sidebar, Norgren notes the anomaly of how thousands of nineteenth-century women not entitled to vote ran (successfully) for public office, often for positions on local school boards. This is a fascinating topic Norgren is currently exploring at www.herhatwasinthering.org.

Leila Robinson (1850–1891), one of Norgren’s heroines, tested both judicial and legislative routes. The only woman at Boston University Law School, which opened in 1872 and where she graduated fourth in her class, Robinson sought admission to the Massachusetts Bar but was refused on the grounds that she was a woman. First taking the judicial route, she was rebuffed by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, whose chief justice opined: “A woman is not, by virtue of her citizenship, vested by the [Fourteenth Amendment of the] Constitution, or the Constitution of the Commonwealth, with any absolute right, independent of legislation, to take part in government, either as a voter or as an officer, or to be admitted to practice as an attorney.”

Drafting legislation directed to the point and introduced to the legislature by Massachusetts representative John Hopkins, an enlightened male champion of women’s rights, Robinson testified before the legislature, stating cautiously that women lawyers would “limit themselves to appropriate areas of the profession and know their place in society.” Although the same legislature rebuffed suffrage for women in municipal elections, Robinson’s bill passed, and after successfully taking the bar exam, she became the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Bar.

As illustrated by her stories, Norgren effectively mines the especially rich material at the intersections of history, and, therefore, it is not surprising that most of the women attorneys she highlights were engaged in other contemporary causes as well. One prime example is Belva Lockwood, the first woman permitted to argue before the U. S. Supreme Court and the subject of Norgren’s fine 2008 full-length biography. After moving from Upstate New York to Washington, where she was surrounded by a circle of like-minded “rebels” that included women physicians, journalists, and educators who would “encourage and critically respect” her, Lockwood was active in the suffrage, abolition, temperance, and peace movements as well. Yet, even though she was accepted to study, she and her female classmates, her so-called “sisters-in-law” at the newly organized National University Law School, were required to attend classes segregated by sex.

By forming “old girl” networks, early women attorneys could strategize and compare notes. In 1886, the Equity Club was founded by women lawyers at the University of Michigan, and in California, the Portia Club (after Shakespeare’s heroine in Merchant of Venice, whose portrait graces the cover of Rebels) was organized by attorney Clara Foltz “to bring ‘together the establishment ladies and the movement women . . . [in] law study . . . to attack the ‘poverty and distress’ that resulted from women’s ‘ignorance of the most common legal principles.’” Still their numbers were few; according to the 1890 census, only 207 women were listed as lawyers.

But plus ça change. More than a century later, Norgren explores how these determined pioneers coped with marriage and family responsibilities while building their careers. Her exploration highlights themes familiar today, when, rather than be accused of “degrading the polity” (among other choice epithets), attorneys who also are mothers are expected to work throughout their child-bearing years. Indeed, one of the issues considered by members of the Equity Club in 1889 was “whether it was ‘practicable for a woman to successfully fulfill the duties of wife, mother and lawyer at one and the same time?’”

Still, for nineteenth-century women attorneys, such as Lockwood, who was widowed early with children, or those women solely responsible for the support of aged parents and extended families, the law seemed to offer more opportunities than the traditional, poorly paid occupation of schoolmarm. When their practices floundered, some women attorneys often sought to raise extra income with public speaking engagements, these offering a common form of entertainment at the time. However, Norgren briefly recounts the sad story of African-American Charlotte E. Ray, the first woman admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, who, when she found it impossible to make a living, eventually moved to New York City, where she taught school.

Norgren’s massive and dogged research efforts have uncovered so many far-flung stories that her chapters virtually overflow with anecdotes. But more importantly, with its overarching theme—the struggles of the first women attorneys for recognition and acceptance—this engaging and well-written book fills a gaping vacuum in the study of legal and women’s history while providing answers to one of the most provocative and key questions facing any responsible historian: What are women doing when we don’t see them?

Marjorie G. Jones

Marjorie G. Jones (herstory@marjoriegjones.com), JD, MA, teaches history at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York. A former trust banker and executive recruiter, she is the author of Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition (Ibis Press 2008) and is currently working on a biography of Philadelphia Quaker Mary Vaux Walcott.