In Honor of Women’s History Month – Myra Colby Bradwell

In 1868, Myra Colby Bradwell, wife and aide to a Chicago attorney, established the Chicago Legal News, the first weekly law journal in the Midwest and eventually the most widely read.  In 1869, an Illinois circuit judge recommended to the state supreme court that Bradwell be issued a license to practice law. The court declined to do so on the ground that, as a married woman, Bradwell was legally prohibited from entering into contracts, something an attorney must be able to do.  Bradwell sought reconsideration, arguing that an Illinois law that permitted married  women to own property also allowed them to enter into contracts. The court rejected her application again, noting simply that the state never contemplated licensing women as attorneys.

Bradwell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where her attorney argued unsuccessfully that the right to a livelihood was protected by the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. 130 (1872).   Adding insult to injury, a concurring opinion by Justice Bradley noted that “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” Id. at 141.

Bradwell was vindicated in 1872 with passage of a bill she helped write that generally prohibited Illinois from enforcing occupation exclusion based on sex.   Although she did not thereafter seek a license to practice, she was nevertheless bestowed one by the State of Illinois upon its own motion in 1890. In 1892, she was granted the right to appear before the U. S. Supreme Court.

Bradwell has frequently been called the best known woman lawyer of her time and is sometimes referred to as the first American woman lawyer.  For additional information, see Nancy T. Gilliam, A Professional Pioneer: Myra Bradwell’s Fight to Practice Law, 5 Law & History  Review 105
(1987); 3 American National Biography 389, 1999 [E 176.A446 (Reference).