Bari Burke

Sisters-in-Law/Then and Now—“Can I Be a Lawyer?” - Advice in Historical Newspapers

“Can I Be a Lawyer?”:   Advice in Historical Newspapers

“I would like to know if there is still any very strong prejudice against the woman lawyer?  Is she at a great disadvantage?  Could I expect the sort of future my brother, were he to follow the law, would have a right to expect?” 

    B.F.L., a high school girl, to Miss Jessie Roberts, “The Girl’s Job:  Can I Be A Lawyer?” Idaho Statesman 1/27/1917

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During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, newspapers contained an abundance of advice for aspiring women lawyers.  To determine how Miss Roberts might have responded to B.F.L., let’s follow that trail of advice issued in newspapers from 1879 through 1919. 

1879    A Bright Future    In 1870, five female lawyers and 40,731 male lawyers in the U.S.

“Young ladies with legal aspirations go boldly on and let nothing discourage you.”  

1882    No Future              In 1880, 75 female lawyers and 64,062 male lawyers in the U.S.

“[F]or the claims of aspiring lady attorneys we must turn a deaf ear. Their practice could never be tolerated in the realms of jurisprudence. . . . They are too strongly tinctured with woman’s rights in a property sense, and too severe in the denunciation of their own sex when suspected of having tripped in the path of virtue . . . .  A lady lawyer couldn’t carry any heart into a case of a hard hearted man suing a poor widow for her last cow, nor could a lady lawyer defend with any animation or esprit an erring sister in a divorce case or breach-of-promise suit.”

1892    Bright Future         In 1890, 208 female lawyers and 89,422 male lawyers in the U.S.

“Women have no trouble pleading their case at home. The high and mighty ruler of the household succumbs without a murmur when the batteries of cajolery are turned fully upon him and a new bonnet or sealskin jacket are most easily won. . . . [It] is to be feared that the genuine womanly little body, no matter how well she may know how to get around her great six-foot husband, will never care to take up a profession which will require her arguing in a crowded court room. . . .”
        “Some women of wealth are now studying law merely to learn how to meet on equal grounds with their legal advisers. . .”
        “[A] girl student . . . remarked that her calfskin books are far more fascinating than novels, for there are the subjects of slander, deceit, matrimony, divorce, master and servant, all included in this delightful study.”

1893    Bright Future

“Several women make large incomes by the law.”

1896    Bright Future

      “[I] think that the law is a good profession for bright women. It is no more difficult than other professions for women whose reasoning powers are good and just as interesting when once entered.
       The woman practitioner need not go into the courts unless she desires to.  A great many lawyers have lucrative office practices, and a clever woman may do a great deal of business managing estates for women and advising them in matters of law.  I do not believe, however, that women need have any trepidation about practicing in the courts. The few who have attempted it have been remarkably successful. They have received the closest attention from juries, and the judges have in most cases treated them in all respects like their masculine fellow-lawyers.  The public is rapidly becoming accustomed to women lawyers. It is beginning to appreciate that they are careful, conscientious and capable.”

1899    Bright Future

   “[A] few women have made a decided and permanent success in the profession.”

1902    Bright Future    In 1900, 1,010 female lawyers and 113,693 male lawyers in the U.S.

      “There is said to be great opposition to the idea of professional women, and especially to women lawyers.  Personally, I find that everybody treats me well.  Judges have always been remarkably kind, and opposing lawyers respectful.  SO FAR I HAVE FOUND MY SEX AN ADVANTAGE RATHER THAN A HINDRANCE (emphasis in original). . . .
        Most women are better fitted for the fireside than for the court room.  But if a woman has the proper qualities of mind for the bar, and is enthusiastic in her work, her chance of success is a man’s chance.” 

1904    Bright Future

      “Woman is intellectually as capable of studying law as man.  There is nothing to deplore in the tendency of women to enter the law.  They lose neither charm nor any true womanly character.  No study or training can change a genuine woman to anything else. . .  As far as education is concerned, woman is in the law to stay and the world will be better for it.  – Professor Ashley in Harper’s Weekly.” 

1909    Limited Future    In 1910, 558 female lawyers and 114,146 male lawyers in the U.S.

Women Should Set Their Sights on Serving as Clerks in Law Offices and Not Lawyers.    

      “While there are comparatively few women lawyers, the sex is said to be in great demand as clerks in law offices. These clerks have a finer grasp of detail than many of the men clerks and for that reason are preferred in many offices where neatness and accuracy are of the greatest importance."

Women Lawyers Should Limit Themselves to Legal Writing.

      “It is said that a large majority of the women lawyers of the United States are earning comfortable livings in other branches of the profession than active practice.  One broad field in which many of them find employment is in analyzing, digesting and classifying the decisions of the Federal and State courts which have been handed down during the ten years ended with 1906.  Law publishing houses give large salaries to capable women for this work.  Another field which it is said is steadily broadening is in the offices of large corporations.  Here, more and more, women are in demand for preparing briefs."

Women Lawyers Should Limit Themselves to Legal Writing.

      “There may be some women who are adapted to advocacy, but we believe that the majority of those who obtain admission to the Bar are not, and further, that the time is hardly ripe for the entrance of many women into this particular department of practice.  It still savors of the incongruous and jars upon what are called the ‘conservative’ sensibilities, to see a woman plead in court, however ably she may perform her part. . . .  In other departments of legal work, however, women may find a wide field for usefulness, where they can easily compete with, and in some of which they may perhaps exceed, the men. We refer especially to the field or fields of legal writing."

There is a Bright Future for “Womanly” (But Not for “Womanish”) Women Lawyers.

       “Since the days of Mother Eve every one has told every one else that woman was not logical, that she acted from instinct rather than intellect, etc.  Yet by some miraculous chance the fact remains that there are at the present day women lawyers of such capacity and renown that they have been entrusted with delicate commissions by the president of the United States, who trusted them above their supposedly superior brothers in the profession.
       It is true that sex is a hindrance to the woman lawyer, but if she resolutely puts aside all womanishness, she will find that true womanliness is as great an asset for her as for the woman doctor.  . . .
       It is a discouraging profession for a woman, and unless she is absolutely sure that she is fitted for it, no college girl should undertake the long years of preparation.  It takes brains and hard work and perseverance, and to those who are lacking in any of the qualities we say emphatically ‘Let it alone!’  But to those who are sure of themselves and who are bound to succeed, ‘Go in and win!’ – The Delineator.”

1911    Bright Future

“For the woman of good education, business instinct and pluck there is a fine opening in one of the most honored professions – the law . . . .”

    Sarah Stephenson, a markedly successful lawyer, answered a series of questions. 

    Q:    “Do you think the average girl should go in for the law, or must the woman lawyer be of a special type to make a success?”  
    A:    “A lawyer should have a business mind, ability to concentrate on work, and a willingness to face real drudgery in the early years.”
    Q:     “Do women lawyers have more women clients than men clients?” 
    A:     “Personally, I have found that there are more men.  The men seem to trust a woman lawyer, while at first the women are inclined to be rather shy and balky at the idea of hiring another woman for a law case.”  
    Q:    “As you have talked about a woman co-operating to the extent of hiring a man to plead her court cases, don’t you think a woman and man lawyer should form a partnership?”
    A:    “If she can overcome the jealousy and suspicion of his wife, sweetheart, sister and mother – yes. . . . .  If my work should increase so that I should have to take a partner, I should prefer to take in a woman lawyer.  I have a girl stenographer, and I find she is far better than a young man.  She will take all the detail work I can give her, and I can trust her to do every bit of it.”
    Q:    “And you really think that a girl can start out independently and earn a living at the law?”
    A:    “Yes.  The first few years may be very hard – long hours, lots of work and a bare living. Later there is no reason why she should not work up to the highest notch.  It depends on her own ability and capacity for work. . . .  My own work has doubled each year and I am making a good living now at the end of my third year of independent office work."

1913    A Debate About the Future of Women Lawyers

“When male and female minds clash in the court room, the woman naturally gives in; she becomes confused; she can not withstand the strain of conflict.  Women are almost too emotional to cope with criminal cases, and, in fact, I doubt whether women as a rule, can ever argue a case in court successfully.”

Seven male judges and lawyers were asked to comment on Dean Jones’s declaration; three agreed and four disagreed. Two examples of the responses are below:

“[T]he natural and beautiful reticence in woman, in my judgment, destroys the needed capacity for the proper handling of another’s interests, either in business or in court.”  Attorney Hency Ach

“I think women are capable of doing work in all professional lines, and I don’t think her emotions would affect her power to make an argument on a point of law or fact.  I think women would have natural ability to present a case either to a court or to a jury.  The training of the law tends to cause any one to lose emotional strength even if they possessed it originally.”  Former District Attorney L. F. Byington

1919    Bright Future for The Women Who Can Stand Mental Punishment

       “'If [a woman] can’t take mental punishment, she will not be a success in the legal profession.  But if she can, she will, and will transform the profession to boot. . . . '
        'There’s a great deal of mental punishment in the legal profession,’ says Miss Kellogg.  'Law work is hard work.  Any woman entering it as a snap had better look somewhere else.'
       'The common failing of women as attorneys, at the outset, is that they take too great a personal interest in their clients.  They become emotionally worked up over the case, forgetting that as lawyers their sphere lies merely in making it easier for judge and jury to determine the facts and execute justice. This emotional quality makes men, both on the bench and in the jury box, inclined to laugh at women lawyers.  A little experience usually is the best and only remedy for this short-coming. And then – look out.'”

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And so what did Miss Jessie Roberts tell B.F.L. in response to her letter asking for advice?

“By the time you are ready to practise the prejudices will doubtless have grown even feebler than they are today. . . .  It would not be right to say that there is no prejudice against the woman lawyer, however.  She has met a good deal of senseless opposition and probably some sign of bad manner and envy.  But she is downing these evidences of darkness.  There are almost three thousand women lawyers in our country, and two magazines devoted to their interests.”

How would you respond to B.F.L.’s letter? Is there still very strong prejudice against the woman lawyer? Is she (you) at a great disadvantage? Can a woman lawyer of today expect the sort of future that a male lawyer has?

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How about a “woman lawyer joke” from this time? “Women who aspire to be lawyers first wrestle with pillow cases.”  


1879 quote -- Detroit Free Press (11/16/1879)

1882 quote -- "Female Lawyers," Steuben Republican (7/26/1882).  Two of the 75 female lawyers in the U.S. were African American.

1892 quote -- "Women Lawyers:  They Should Succeed, for They Are Always Good Pleaders," The Times (8/27/1892)

1893 quote -- "Women Lawyers in America," The Daily Journal (3/18/1893)

1896 quote -- "Representative Women Lawyers of America," The San Francisco Call (12/13/1896), quoting Mrs. Cornelia Hood, founder of the Women's Legal Education Society

1899 quote -- The Times (7/5/1899)

1902 quote -- "Women and the Law," by Catherine May Burnet, Boone County Republican (9/16/1902)

1904 quote -- "Women as Lawyers," The Daily News (2/5/1904), quoting Clarence D. Ashley, Dean of New York University Law School


"Women Law Clerks," Webb City Register (3/18/1909); The Sun (5/23/1909); "Women in the Law," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (5/9/1909); "Few Successful Lawyers," The Daily Republican (6/11/1909)

1911 quotes -- "Occupations for Women -- the Lawyer," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (6/10/1911)

1913 quote -- "Women Too Emotional for Law?  Mere Men Differ on the Question," The San Francisco Call (10/14/1913), quoting Professor William Casey Jones, dean of the law school of the University of California

1919 quote -- "Women Must Stand Mental Punishment to Be Success in Any Profession, Says Los Angeles Girl Lawyer," The Evening News (7/19/1919)

Miss Jessie Roberts to B.D.L., “The Girl’s Job:  Can I Be A Lawyer?” Idaho Statesman (1/27/1917)

"Woman Lawyer Joke" -- Pittsburgh Dispatch (9/30/1891)

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