Myra Bradwell, America's "First" Female Lawyer


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Myra Bradwell was a proper Victorian lady, who stepped out of her comfort zone, passed the Bar exam with honors, but was denied a license to practice law. She took her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices ruled against her. In response, she didn’t wait for permission. Myra went ahead and published a legal newspaper. She became so influential that lawyers and justices relied on her to clarify and publish rulings. She made herself indispensable to the very people who wanted to keep her out of the courtroom.

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Myra Bradwell, America's "First" Female Lawyer

  1. 1. MYRA BRADWELL America’s “First” Female Attorney and someone you should know Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  2. 2. A Story of Conflict and Irony • “First” (just a technicality) • Wrote laws (never elected) • Judges relied on her, but kept Myra out of courtrooms Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  3. 3. Early Years Born 1831, Vermont Age 12 moved to Schaumburg Attended School Kenosha, WI Elgin Female Seminary Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  4. 4. 19th Century Rights and Privileges of Law Principle of Common Law A husband had complete control A wonderful time for self-made MEN Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  5. 5. The legal profession: no place for a woman Married 1852 True womanhood Myra had modest hope 1855 James admitted to the Chicago Bar, later a IL Legislator & Cook Co. Judge James B. Bradwell Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  6. 6. Wife and mother Daughter Myra born 1854, died at age 7 Thomas born 1856 Bessie born 1858 James born 1862, died at age 2 Bessie Bradwell Helmer Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  7. 7. Application to Practice Law She passed the Bar exam in 1869 with high honors Applied for a license A Circuit Judge and State’s Attorney signed her application Myra cited the Illinois Revised Statue, which said IL laws were gender neutral Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  8. 8. “Wrecking” her family 1870 IL Supreme Court Denied! because she was a married woman Must be “available” to her husband at all times Myra responded with a scholarly brief “God designed sexes to occupy different spheres” Alfred M. Craig, Illinois Supreme Court Judge Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  9. 9. Women said to be unfit for Civil Occupations 1873 U.S Supreme Court Bradwell v. Illinois Denied! Law license a privilege granted by states Family harmony, interest, identity “repugnant” to a woman having a career Justice Bradley U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  10. 10. Far-reaching influence 1868 Editor and publisher 1871 Chicago Fire Indispensable to all lawyers Released judicial decisions before courts published them Judges came to her to correct a published ruling Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  11. 11. Author and advocate 1872 Myra and Alta Hulet drafted a statute opening occupations to women James saw that it passed in IL 1873 Alta, at age 19, was admitted to the IL Bar Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  12. 12. Never Again! 1876 James and Myra helped Mary Lincoln 1876 Represented IL at the Centennial Expo in Philadelphia By 1879 made it possible for 26 women to become lawyers in several states 1890 IL Supreme Court reversed itself Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  13. 13. History Destroyed Bessie Bradwell Helmer took over CLN Granddaughter Myra Bradwell Helmer Pritchard inherited Mrs. Lincoln’s letters Myra Pritchard wrote articles about Mrs. Lincoln’s insanity trial, but the magazine cancelled. Robert Lincoln’s widow and lawyers destroyed originals Robert Lincoln Tuesday, August 6, 2013
  14. 14. History Recovered Jane Friedman biography of Myra Bradwell, Americaʼs First Woman Lawyer, 1993 Prometheus Books 2005 Jason Emerson found of two letters penned by Robertʼs attorney, Frederic N. Towers 2006, 25 of Mrs. Lincolnʼs letters, previous unpublished, were discovered in a steamer trunk owned by the children of Robert Todd Lincolnʼs attorney The Madness of Mary Lincoln by Jason Emerson, 2007 The Dark Days of Abraham Lincolnʼs Widow, Myra Helmer Pritchard, written in 1927, released 2011, SIU Press Tuesday, August 6, 2013