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.