Indomitable Myra Bradwell of Chicago, Rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, Set Her Own Precedents
By Joe Mathewson
With the exception of Mrs. O’Leary, women were not prominent in Chicago’s early history. Limited by tradition and by law, they played supporting roles to their husbands.
Myra Bradwell, a wife and mother, was informed sternly and in no uncertain terms that that was her proper role in life, too. There was no appealing that unwelcome restriction, for the authors of it were justices of the United States Supreme Court. They were explaining why they were denying her application to practice law in Illinois. Their reasoning had nothing to do with her qualifications, which were excellent, and little to do with constitutional law.
In its majority opinion (there was one dissenter, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase), rendered in May of 1873, the Court held simply that admission to the bar was for each state to decide. And the Illinois Supreme Court had decided. It had turned Mrs. Bradwell down, declaring that a woman could not become a lawyer in Illinois for the simple reason that the state had adopted the English common law, which did not contemplate such a possibility.
What made the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision especially noteworthy was not so much the judgment itself, which was wholly in keeping with the Court’s well-known disposition at that time to protect property rights more than individual rights, but a remarkably un-legal concurring opinion written by Justice Joseph P. Bradley and joined by two of his colleagues:
The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things, and cannot be based upon exceptional cases. . . [I]n view of the peculiar characteristics, destiny, and mission of woman, it is within the province of the legislature to ordain what offices, positions, and callings shall be filled and discharged by men, and shall receive the benefit of those energies and responsibilities and that decision and firmness which are presumed to predominate in the sterner sex.
Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. 130, 141-42, Justice Bradley, concurring (1873).
One can imagine how Myra Bradwell must have felt. Then 42 years old, she had worked long and hard in her husband’s law office to pass the bar examination. Years later she would tell the Chicago Daily Tribune, “I acquired the idea from helping my husband in his office. I was always with him, helping in whatever way I could. Thus I picked up a considerable smattering of law and about five years after our marriage I determined to read in good earnest.”
Illinois law at that time stated that any adult “person” of good character and with sufficient knowledge of the law could be admitted to the bar. Mrs. Bradwell looked to the Fourteenth Amendment, enacted after the Civil War, which prohibited any state from abridging the “privileges and immunities” of U. S. citizenship. Confident she was in the right, she even retained a United States senator, Matthew Hale Carpenter of Wisconsin, an advocate of women’s rights, to argue her case before the Supreme Court. But the justices held that admission to the bar was not among the privileges and immunities of citizenship.
With that rejection, surely she was crestfallen, perhaps totally defeated. But not so. Not Myra Bradwell.
While studying law, Bradwell had founded a newspaper, the Chicago Legal News, which by 1873 was the leading law periodical in the Midwest. It carried legal news, summaries of court opinions, and the texts of newly-enacted Illinois statutes. It soon became the official reporter of actions by the legislature. In time the paper began reporting decisions of the federal courts throughout the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and so gained a broad following.
The great Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed the paper’s offices but Bradwell retrieved the subscription book and soon resumed publishing from an office in Milwaukee. She reprinted back issues carrying opinions and statutes, so the Illinois legislature designated the paper the official publisher of all legal records lost in the fire.
Myra Bradwell also used the pages of the Chicago Legal News to advocate for social and legal reforms and women’s issues. She criticized conditions at the Cook County poor house and even the court house. Courageously, she spotlighted judges who were heavy drinkers. In 1873, the year the U.S. Supreme Court turned her down, she drafted for her husband James, then a member of the Illinois legislature, a bill he introduced giving women the right to run for school boards. It passed. He also successfully sponsored bills allowing women to become notaries public, to keep their own wages, and to have equal rights to the custody of their children after a divorce. Myra Bradwell was a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln; when the president’s widow was committed to an insane asylum in 1875 by her son Robert, Bradwell and others remonstrated, securing her release after four months.
In 1889 the Chicago Daily Tribune called Myra Bradwell “probably the best known woman journalist in Chicago . . . a woman of no mean business ability.”
The article went on: “Mrs. Bradwell is a handsome brunette; her winning manner and kind, sympathetic nature attract all who meet her. In her home she is a model of noble womanhood, a devoted wife, a fond and judicious mother.” She was one of a handful of Chicago women who played leading roles in securing and organizing the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.
Myra Bradwell never again applied for a law license. But, as reported by the Tribune in April 1890, more than two decades after her application, “upon the original record, every member of the Illinois Supreme Court cordially acquiesced in granting, on the court’s own motion, a license as an attorney and counselor-at-law to Mrs. Bradwell.” Two years later the U.S. Supreme Court admitted her to practice there, too. Because her admissions were backdated to her application, she was belatedly recognized as the first woman lawyer in the United States.
Myra Bradwell never practiced law. Two years after the Supreme Court admitted her, she died of cancer. She was 63 years old.
Joe Mathewson teaches journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School. He previously covered the U.S. Supreme Court for The Wall Street Journal and practiced law in Chicago. This article is adapted from his book, The Supreme Court and the Press: The Indispensable Conflict, to be published in fall 2010 by the Northwestern University Press in the Medill School’s “Visions of the American Press” series edited by David Abrahamson. Read more from Joe Mathewson on his site, Jmathewson's Blog.
Women's Legal History Biography Project: Myra Bradwell (an extensive list of links)
America's First Woman Lawyer:The Biography of Myra Bradwell by Jane M. Friedman
Myra Bradwell: Legendary Women of Causes
Myra Bradwell & The Chicago Legal News
Emphasis on women lawyers' femininity