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I Want My Lawyer

January 9, 2012

Today, we take for granted that a woman has the opportunity, ability and right to enter any profession in which she has an interest.  But in the not too distant past, this was not always the case.

In the 1870’s, Myra Bradwell applied for admission to the Illinois bar.  As prescribed in the state statute, she was an “adult of good character and with sufficient training,” and thus she applied.  The Illinois state supreme court, however, denied her admission.  They noted that the “strife” of the bar would destroy femininity.  Myra appealed this decision to the US Supreme Court, seeking relief under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities clause.  The US Supreme Court disagreed with Myra, however, and upheld the Illinois decision with an 8-1 ruling.

While the ruling was based on issues related to state’s rights and some residency issues (as opposed to solely basing a decision on Myra’s status as a woman) it is important to note that three of the Supreme Court Justices made pointed reference to Myra’s gender.  Justice Bradley, in fact, stated –  “[t]he natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life… The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”  He further went on “… a married woman is incapable, without her husband’s consent, of making contracts which shall be binding on her or him.  This very incapacity was one circumstance which the Supreme Court of Illinois deemed important in rendering a married woman incompetent fully to perform the duties and trusts that belong to the office of an attorney and counselor.”

Interestingly enough, in a previous case which also hinged on intricacies of the Privileges or Immunities clause, Bradley stated (when referencing men) “the right of any citizen to follow whatever lawful employment he chooses to adopt (submitting himself to all lawful regulations) is one of his most valuable rights, and one which the legislature of a State cannot invade, whether restrained by its own constitution or not.”

Huh.

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But some good things flowed from this:

The Illinois legislature passed a law in 1872 stating – “No person shall be precluded or debarred from any occupation, profession, or employment (except the military) on account of gender.”

Myra continued her work as publisher, business manager, and editor in chief of Chicago Legal News and was an active member in the woman’s suffrage movement.  Although she took no further steps to gain her license, in 1890, the Illinois Supreme Court, acting on its own, approved her original application.  Had she so wished, by 1892 she could have practiced law before the US Supreme Court.

Sure would have been fun to see her in front of Justice Bradley.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Nancy permalink
    January 9, 2012 10:39 pm

    Thanks for this Robin! I’ve spent the last couple of days thinking about a recent situation of sexual harassment where I was asked for advice/assistance…We’ve come so far, and yet we still have so far to go.

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