Who Was Myra Bradwell: America's First Woman Lawyer

Written by S. Danilina and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Myra Bradwell is not well known to the average person but is a particularly important figure in the history of law and women's rights. Myra Bradwell was the first American woman who became a lawyer. More importantly,  Myra Bradwell opened the doors for all American women who wished to obtain the license to practice law.

Myra Bradwell was born February 12, 1831, in Manchester, Vermont. Myra’s family moved to Illinois when she was 12 years old.  She had graduated from the Elgin Female Seminary in Illinois before she turned 24 years old. Her love of the law had begun when she married her husband James Bradwell in 1852, who was also a law student. Slowly Myra started to learn the law.

In 1868, Myra Bradwell has founded the Chicago Legal News. The Chicago Legal News was the most popular legal newspaper in the United States at that time. Finally, on August 2, 1869, Myra passed the Illinois law exam. Later in September she applied for the submission to the bar. As the addition to regular documents, Myra sent a letter where she addressed the issue of her sex. In this letter, she stated that women had all rights to be able to do things that men did.

Unfortunately, the Illinois Supreme Court denied Myra’s submission to the bar, but not because she was a woman. Myra was denied the submission for being a married woman. At that time, married woman’s job was to take care of her husband and children. If Myra would be granted the license to practice law, it would interfere with her family responsibilities.

However, Myra Bradwell did not give up her dream and appealed her case in Illinois. Sadly, she was denied the bar admission again. This time she was actually denied for being a woman. The Court provided four reasons for Myra's denial to practice law. First, the Illinois law was silent about women entering the law profession. Second, the state was concerned with too many women working in the offices if Myra would be granted her license. The third reason was that some of the violent law cases would not be suited for a woman. Finally, the state did not know how women would affect the administration of justice.

After this decision, Myra Bradwell decided to take her case to the United States Supreme Court. Myra’s new attorney Senator Matthew H. Carpenter of Wisconsin argued that women had the right to choose the law professions, but did not have the right to vote. This argument was not truly popular among the women, but Carpenter believed that it was the only winning tactic for Myra’s case. However, in 1873 the Supreme Court also denied Bradwell because of her gender.

In 1872, the Illinois legislature passed a law that stated that no person could be denied the opportunity to pursue any career path on account of sex. Due to this law Alta M. Hulett was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1873. Bradwell was not admitted to the Illinois bar since she needed to reapply for the bar admission. Myra Bradwell did not feel the need reapply for her law license. She already felt like a winner since she helped American women to have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

Myra Bradwell continued to work on the Chicago Legal News and practice law without a license. In 1890, the Supreme Court of Illinois granted Bradwell the license to practice law. The United States Supreme Court granted her license 2 years later, as well. Both licenses were granted “munc pro tunc”, which meant that official documents were dated 1869. That was the original year Myra applied for her license. Thus, Myra Bradwell was indeed the first woman who could legally practice law in the United States.

 

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