By Kellie Campbell • February 03, 2013•Writers in Residence, First Women
It always fascinates me to step back in history to a time when women had to fight, argue, scrap and plead for the right to practice law. Historians recount the many stories of women who worked every respectable angle they could think of in an effort to become a practicing attorney. Myra Bradwell was one of those women. Bradwell was an editor with a Chicago legal publication and her husband was an attorney, so she was no stranger to the law. When she decided to study for the bar and apply for a law license in 1872, she was turned down by the Supreme Court of Illinois. She sued.
In the case of Bradwell v. Illinois, Myra Bradwell asked the Supreme Court of the United States to rectify the obvious injustice that prevented her from obtaining her bar license. She argued that the Fourteenth Amendment was on her side. How could the Court deny her the ability to choose an occupation? But it did. Although the Court made its ruling on finer points of constitutional law, one of the justices revealed the underlying social setting when he wrote that the “natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” Women, he concluded, were too timid and delicate for the law. He went on to say, “(T)he family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.”
I cannot imagine the frustration of this intelligent, determined woman as she battled for her dream. The history books may record the legal arguments and opinions, but we are left to wonder what toll it took on Myra Bradwell. I try to put myself in her shoes. First, the application for the license. She had to know it was a long shot, but the Fourteenth Amendment had recently passed so it wasn’t unreasonable to think that she might become the first woman lawyer in the State of Illinois. It was probably a long-awaited letter that brought her the bad news. Then the lawsuit. Did she get to help draft the documents that eventually made their way to the highest court in the land? Probably so – but they would not bear her signature.
I wonder whether she remained hopeful throughout the entire case or whether she saw the writing on the wall from the beginning. I have to think that she continued to be optimistic up until the end. And then what? Tears or anger or both? And what unlucky soul had to deliver the news that because of her gender, she would not become an attorney? Maybe she maintained her composure, but I think I’d be exercising the timidity and delicacy of Annie Oakley using the fine china for target practice in the back forty. Chain the mind and you chain the soul.
We’ve come a long way since 1872, but archaic views of women have not vanished from the landscape. Every day we carry on the mission of women like Myra Bradwell who set out to prove that gender does not determine success in the practice of law. On those days when the practice of law frustrates me, I think of how badly Myra Bradwell wanted my job and I imagine her cheering all of us on toward greater equality. Myra was finally admitted to the bar in 1890, just a few years before cancer took her life. It's hard to call it justice when you consider how many years she was denied a simple dream. Keep fighting the good fight against invisible chains that continue to restrict and repress human ambition and individual freedom. Our history as women lawyers is told one strong woman at a time, and you and I are part of that story.