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Who Is Myra Bradwell?

Beth Bresemann
Oregon High School, Oregon

Myra Bradwell is not well remembered, but she was very important in Illinois history. Her claim to fame is that she was the first woman lawyer in Illinois.

Bradwell was born on February 12, 1831, in Manchester, Vermont. When she was twelve, her family moved to Schaumburg, Illinois. At some point in her teenage years she attended finishing school in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She later enrolled at the Elgin Female Seminary in Illinois, and completed her formal education by the age of twenty-four.

In 1852 Myra married James Bradwell, who was a law student. Although she began to study law informally, her formal law training began a few years later when James was accepted to the Illinois bar and she apprenticed as a lawyer in her husband's office.

The process went rather slowly due to many interruptions. Bradwell had four children, two of which died at a very early age. She helped to aid sick


Myra Bradwell
Myra Bradwell paved the way for women who wanted to pursue careers outside the home.

and wounded soldiers during the Civil War, and she founded the Chicago Legal News in 1868. It was the most widely circulated legal newspaper in the United States for at least two decades. Even though she had several setbacks, Myra Bradwell was determined to learn law.

On August 2, 1869, Bradwell passed the Illinois law exam. Her qualification documents were signed by Circuit Judge E.S. William and State Attorney Charles H. Reed. Both of these men encouraged Bradwell to get her law license.

In September she applied for the bar. She sent the regular documents accompanied by an additional document addressing the issue of her sex. In her document she quoted chapter 90, section 28 of the Illinois Revised Statues: "When any party or person is described or referred to by words importing the masculine gender, females as well as males, shall be deemed to be included."

The Illinois Supreme Court denied her admission to the bar. She was denied not for being a woman, but because she was a married woman. In that time period, women were required to be available to their husbands at all times. The court was afraid that since she would be held responsible for her actions, she might be arrested; therefore she would not be available to her husband.

Myra Bradwell was not satisfied; she appealed her case in Illinois. This time she was denied for being a woman and four reasons were given. The first reason was that the Illinois legislature was silent about women entering the profession; hence it was concluded that women would not be allowed to practice law. The second reason was that the state worried about "opening the floodgates." If one woman was allowed into a civil office, then all civil offices would be filled with women. The third reason was that some of the brutal cases would not be appropriate for a woman. The final reason was that the state was worried about the effect women would have on the administration of justice.

This disgusted Bradwell, and she felt that women were being "annihilated." She decided to take her concern to the United States Supreme Court. Her new attorney was a well-recognized man, Senator Matthew H. Carpenter of Wisconsin. He argued that women had the right to the law profession but not the right to vote. This angered many women, but Carpenter thought it was the only way to win Bradwell's case. In 1873 the Supreme Court also denied Bradwell because of her sex.

In 1872 the Illinois legislature passed a law stating that, "No person shall be precluded or debarred from any occupation, profession, or employment (except military) on account of sex." Because of this, in 1873, Alta M. Hulett was admitted to the Illinois bar. Bradwell was not admitted because she would have to reapply. The Supreme Court did not 'grant her admission because she appealed the wrong case. She was not appealing for the right to practice law, but for all women in the United States.

If Bradwell would have reapplied to the bar in Illinois, she would have been accepted. She did not pursue it, however. She felt she had already won. Women all over the country had new professional opportunities because of her and many other women.

Myra Bradwell continued to work on the Chicago Legal News where she was the journal's publisher, business manager, and editor-in-chief. She continued to voice her opinions through the journal. She was practicing law without a license. She did not just write about social legislation but also wrote editorial pleas to courts all over the United States. She affected many cases.

In 1890 the Supreme Court of Illinois granted Bradwell her license to practice law. Two years later the United States Supreme Court did the same thing, with the help of the attorney general of the United States, Henry Harrison Miller. Both courts granted her license munc pro tunc ("now for then"). Her official documents were dated 1869, the original year Bradwell applied. She was then, indeed, the first woman lawyer in Illinois.

Myra Bradwell's important and interesting life ended in 1894 from cancer, just two years after she was granted her license. Bradwell's life was full of important events, including the rights she won for women.[From Collins Witter and Evelyn Witter, Notable Illinois Women; Kathryn Cullen-DuPont, The Encyclopedia of Women's History in America; Jane M. Friedman, America's First Woman Lawyer.]


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