Setbacks, Successes, and striding forward…


In 1870, Myra Bradwell was the first woman to argue in court for her right to become a lawyer, she was denied by the Illinois Supreme Court, despite having passed the Bar in that state. The United States Supreme Court heard the case and upheld the Illinois Court’s decision, saying that she was unfit to practice law based on her sex.  Despite initially being denied the right to practice as a lawyer, the fact that she educated herself in the law and passed the Bar meant she broke important barriers. Back in the 1800’s, women rarely got education past elementary school. Bradwell was eventually given a license to practice law, towards the end of her life. However, her license was munc pro tunc, which is latin for “now for then” *. This basically meant that Bradwell was given a license to practice law, but it was not true for women in general.  It wasn’t until the 1920’s that most states allowed women to practice law and even when it became legal for women to practice law they were strongly discriminated against.  Most women weren’t hired, (like RBG), or faced a hostile workplace. Sarah Grimke couldn’t become a lawyer either, and she was denied access to the education which Bradwell was able to get.  Grimke was educated enough though to write and speak out for the Abolition of Slavery and Women’s Rights, and she lived at the same time as Myra Bradwell, so they both broke barriers this way. Ruth Bader Ginsberg carried on their fight, and not only got the education and license to be a lawyer, she went on to become a Judge and a Supreme Court Justice.  People like Myra Bradwell and Sarah Grimke are left out of the History Books, however thanks to women like RBG and others who work for women’s equality, their efforts have made a difference and won’t be forgotten.




6 thoughts on “Setbacks, Successes, and striding forward…

  1. I know it’s a lot farther away in time and space than the material and people you’ve been studying and sharing about, but on the subject of women’s legal education, I always thought that the book The Law’s Resolution of Women’s Rights (1632) was really intriguing. Although it’s written by a man, you can see his interest in making sure that women understood what legal rights they had–an important preliminary step for them to be able to study law one day.


  2. Soph — interesting — What was the reasoning? Did the Court deny her the right to practice law because the Constitution says: “Women can’t practice law.”???? If that’s what it says, then why did she think that she should be able to practice law?


    1. Thanks for commenting again. The law didn’t specifically prohibit her from becoming a lawyer, but it also didn’t protect her right to become one, according to the court’s interpretation at that time. She argued that her right to practice law was protected under the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court’s decision was 8-1 against her, stating that the right to practice a profession was not protected under this clause. The decision did not make reference to her sex, however 3 of the justices supporting opinions spoke of women as being unfit to practice certain professions and only meant to be “wife and mother”. It wasn’t until 100 years later in Reed v. Reed that the Equal Protection clause of the 14th amendment was used to dis-mantel laws that discriminated on the basis of sex. Thank you again for commenting.


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