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Women Lawyers and State Bar Admission
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Message from Susan B. Anthony, 1869. Law Library of Congress.
bibliographic record

Women have been a part of the legal system since the early years of this nation, but for a long time, they were prohibited through various means from practicing law. There have been some exceptions. Margaret Brent (ca. 1601-1671), for example, arrived in the New World in 1638, received a land grant in St. Mary's City, and became executrix for Governor Leonard Calvert of Maryland. She appeared before the provincial court to file suits against her own debtors and to plead cases for others.48 Luce Terry (1730-1821) in 1796 was “the first voice of a black woman in the nation to influence law before a court on which a member of the U.S. Supreme Court sat when she gave an oral argument in a Vermont court before Justice Samuel Chase who was riding the circuit in New England.”49

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Title page of Chicago Legal News, 1869. Law Library of Congress.
bibliographic record

Initially, women were denied admission to law schools, and later they were denied admission to state bar associations. State legislative bodies or the administrative offices of a state's supreme court determine the requirements for bar admission and the codes of professional ethics.

Myra Bradwell (1831-1894), for example, filed a petition with the U. S. Supreme Court to appeal the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court that denied her admission to the state bar in 1872 after she had completed her legal studies and passed the bar examination.50 Her argument was based on the Immunities and Privileges Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which says: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. . . .”51 The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the immunities and privileges clause did not apply to the “right to admission to practice in the courts of a State,” and thereby set a precedent of noninterference by the federal government in state employment affairs that would remain in place for decades. The justices conceded that Mrs. Bradwell was a “citizen” according to the Constitution, but the fact that she was married presented the Court with problems. Justice Bradley concurred in the Court's opinion, and his view of women would prevail in future judicial opinions:

It certainly cannot be affirmed, as an historical fact, that this has ever been established as one of the fundamental privileges and immunities of the sex. On the contrary, the civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman's protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interest and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband.52 [full item]

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Belva Lockwood. Photograph, n.d. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-BH834-55.

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In 1893 Belva A. Lockwood (1830-1917), a trained attorney who was the first woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, filed suit for mandamus in this same court to force the Commonwealth of Virginia to admit her to the state bar. Stating its precedent, the U.S. Supreme Court “denied leave” to bring her argument:

In Bradwell v. the State, 16 Wall. 130, it was held that the right to practise law in the state courts was privilege or immunity of a citizen of the United States; that the right to control and regulate the granting of license to practise law in the courts of a State is one of those powers that was not transferred for its protection to the Federal government, and its exercise is in no manner governed or controlled by citizenship of the United States in the party seeking such license.53

Belle Babb Mansfield (1846-1911), the first woman admitted to a state bar in the United States, was formally admitted to the Iowa State Bar in June 1869 after a ruling in the Iowa courts in her favor.54 Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1899 or 1900), a Howard University graduate, was the first African American woman lawyer; she was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1872 without a fight because she applied for admission under the name C. E. Ray and the admissions committee thought she was male.55

Today women lawyers are enjoying opportunities that would surprise and delight women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An 1890 commentary by Lelia Robinson (1850-1891), the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts bar, traces the beginnings:

[B]ut it remained for the United States to inaugurate the era of the woman lawyer of today. And this was so short a time ago,—for the woman lawyer in the abstract has not yet attained her majority,—that the novelty of her very existence has scarcely begun to wear off, and the newspapers publish and republish little floating items about women lawyers along with those of the latest sea-serpent, the popular idea seeming to be that the one is about as real as the other.56

As the woman lawyer is increasingly taken more seriously, books for women attorneys address such issues as how to become partners in large law firms, “rain-making (or generating business for a law firm),” and marketing as a sole practitioner. More important, women attorneys are receiving favorable decisions in court concerning their rights as attorneys, not just their right to be members of a state bar.57


Drachman, Virginia G. Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998 (KF299.W6 D7 1998).

Morello, Karen. The Invisible Bar: The Woman Lawyer in America 1638 to Present. New York: Random House, 1986 (KF299.W6 M67 1986). This treatise, an often-cited source, is an excellent historical account of women practicing law in the United States.

Robinson, Lelia. “Woman Lawyers in the United States.” The Green Bag 2 (1890):10. In this popular magazine published in Boston in the 1890s, Robinson gives the contemporary view of women lawyers.

Smith, J. Clay Jr., ed. Rebels in Law: Voices in History of Black Women Lawyers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1998 (KF299.A35 R43 1998). This excellent chronicle of the African American woman's experience in law is told in the words of various authors. Although it describes some of the same hardships as other accounts of women lawyers, Rebels in Law is unusual in showing how these women had to struggle with other social restrictions, such as racism.

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