Attention: open in a new window. PrintE-mail

Women and the Law

In recognition of Women’s History Month, the City Bar is displaying selected materials from its library that help document the evolution of women’s rights and suffrage in this country, and the pursuit of a woman’s right to practice law and to join Bar Associations.

Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.

- Susan B. Anthony, 1868

The Case Against Woman Suffrage
New York City: The Man-Suffrage Association, 1915

Attorney Everett Wheeler, Chairman of the Man-Suffrage Association, inscribed his name in this copy of the book which includes numerous individual opinions as well as legal interpretations against the proposed suffrage amendment. Listed in opposition to woman suffrage are former President Grover Cleveland, a few former New York City mayors, a number of Judges, the Presidents of Harvard and Williams Colleges, several members of the clergy, and leaders of the New York City Bar Association including Elihu Root and Henry L. Stimson, and an impressive list of leaders of women's organizations.

Legal Status of Women

Lawes-and-resolutionsThe Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights or the Laws Provision for Women, A Methodical Collection of Such Statutes and Customes, With the Cases, Opinions, Arguments, and the Points of Learning in the Law, As Do Properly Concerne Women. London: Printed by the Assigns of John More, 1632.

This is the earliest book in English on the legal status and rights of women. Commonly called “The Women’s Lawyer,” this book assembles English statutes affecting women, maids, widows and children, and cites cases concerning many aspects of domestic relations. An anonymous work, it is believed the author was Sir John Dodderidge, an important legal figure during the reign of King James I. It also treats such diverse topics as age of consent, dower, hermaphrodites, polygamy, wooing, partition, chattels, divorce, descent, seisin, treason, felonies and rape.

Reeve, Tapping. The law of Baron and Femme; of Parent and Child; of Guardian and Ward; of Master and Servant; and of the Powers of Court of Chancery. New Haven: Oliver Steele, 1816.

Husband and wife, in the language of the law, are styled "baron" and "feme." During the early history of this country, American law followed the tenets of English common law to define women's rights. Because of the lack of uniformity in the courts and legislative bodies from colony to colony, laws were subject to wide interpretation Unmarried women could own property, make contracts, sue and be sued. A married woman, by reason of coverture, gave up her name and virtually all of her property, and was considered under the protection of her husband. Tapping Reeve (1744-1823) was a lawyer, jurist and founder, in Litchfield Connecticut, of one of the first law schools in the United States. In this book, the first edition of the first American work devoted to the law of women, he explains the common law of England and "such of their statutes as we have adopted in words and principle..."

Anthony, Susan Brownell. An account of the proceedings on the trial of Susan B. Anthony, on the charge of illegal voting: at the presidential election in Nov., 1872, and on the trial of Beverly W. Jones, Edwin T. Marsh, and William B. Hall, the inspectors of election by whom her vote was received. Rochester, N.Y.: Daily Democrat and Chronicle Book Print, 1874.

Before the Civil War, a number of women who participated in the abolitionist movement also organized in pursuit of their own rights. At the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, they affirmed their belief that universal suffrage was the vehicle that would change injustices in the system. Susan B. Anthony (pictured at left) saw that all of the legal disabilities faced by American women owed their existence to the simple fact that women lacked the right to vote. She declared "that the right which woman needed above every other, the one indeed which would secure to her all the others, was the right of suffrage." The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, had declared that all people born in the United States were citizens and that no legal privileges could be denied to any citizen. Anthony decided to challenge this amendment saying that women were citizens and the amendment did not restrict the privilege of voting to men. She registered to vote in Rochester, New York, on November 1, 1872. Four days later sixteen women, including Anthony, voted in the presidential election. All sixteen women were arrested three weeks later, but only Anthony was brought before a court. The presiding judge opposed women's suffrage and wrote his decision before the trial had even started. Refusing to let Anthony testify, he ordered the jury to find her guilty, then sentenced her to pay a $100 fine. She refused, and no further action was taken against her. Nearly fifty years later, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, referred to as the Susan B. Anthony amendment, declared that the right of citizens to vote, "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Women as Lawyers

In Maryland, Margaret Brent, arrived in the new country in 1638, received a land grant in St, Mary's City and subsequently handled legal matters for Governor Calvert. It wasn't until 1869 that a women, Belle Mansfield, (pictured at left) from Iowa, became the first attorney licensed to practice law in the United States. In the same year, Myra Bradwell from Illinois was denied admission to the state bar on the basis of her sex. Also in 1869, Lemma Barkaloo became the first women law student in the nation, attending Washington University in St. Louis after being refused admission to the Law School at Columbia. The following year, Ada Kepley, became the first women to earn a formal law degree in the United States, graduating with an LL.B. from Union College of Law in Chicago, now known as Northwestern University. Katherine "Kate" Stoneman became the first woman admitted to practice law in New York. She did so against enormous odds; supporting herself as a teacher and working nights, weekends, and summers as a clerk to an Albany lawyer until she graduated in 1898. She was the first woman to pass the New York State Bar Exam, but her application to join the bar was rejected because of her gender. The reason given by the three Supreme Court justices who denied her admission were "No precedent," "No English precedent," and "No necessity." She then launched a successful campaign to amend the Code of Civil Procedure to permit the admission of qualified applicants without regard to sex or race. These and many other pioneering women have built the foundation for equality in the legal profession. According to the 2005 ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, women represented almost 30% of practicing attorneys and over 47% of new students entering law school.

In the matter of the application of Mrs. Myra Bradwell for a license to practice law, 1869
55 Illinois Reports 536, 1869-1870

In 1869, Myra Bradwell (pictured at left) passed the Illinois Bar Exam with honors. She then applied to the Illinois Supreme court for admission to the bar. The court refused her application because she was a woman. The decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bradwell v. Illinois despite Bradwells's argument based on the Immunities and Privileges Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which says: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. The opinion of Justice Bradley in the case reflected the nineteenth century society belief about women not participating in the workforce, "Man is, or should be, woman's protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life." Eventually, Illinois changed the rules for admitting women to the bar. In 1890, Bradwell was admitted to the Illinois bar and in 1892, she received a license to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Green Bag: A useless but entertaining magazine for lawyers. Boston: The Boston Book Company, 1890.

In 1890, Lelia Robinson, the first women to be admitted to the Massachusetts bar, attempted to locate and survey all of the nation's female lawyer. The results of her study, Women Lawyers in the United States, were published in the second volume of the Green Bag. The 1890 Census listed 208 women out of 89,422 total lawyers. Robinson was able to locate 120 for her profiles. The women were from 21 states, plus Washington D.C. and Hawaii, with by far the most from Illinois and Michigan where there were law schools friendly to their admission. Robinson modeled her work on the "Bench and Bar" collections of biographies and pictures of lawyers and judges that were common in the nineteenth century. The pictures, information, and often the prose itself in these publications were furnished by the subjects, and were, to say the least, uncritical.

 United States Congress. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary. Nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor : hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Ninety-seventh Congress, first session, on the nomination of Judge Sandra Day O’Connor of Arizona to serve as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, September 9, 10, and 11, 1981. Washington : U.S. G.P.O., 1982.

In 1969, President Nixon nominated the first woman, Mildred Lillie, to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. After much opposition, he withdrew her name and nominated William Rehnquist. In 1981, President Reagan, in an effort to offset criticism of his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. In her Senate confirmation hearings, O’Connor cautiously expressed her conservative views and declined to be cornered on the question of abortion. She was confirmed by a 99-0 vote and took her seat on the court on September 26, 1981.


1638 Margaret Brent, the "first woman lawyer" in America, arrives in the Colony of Maryland.

1777 All states pass laws which take away the women's right to vote.

1848 At Seneca Falls, New York, 300 women and men sign the Declaration of Sentiments, a plea for the end of discrimination against women.

1866 The 14th Amendment is passed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1868.

1869 Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton form the National Woman Suffrage Association. The first woman suffrage law in the U.S. is passed in the territory of Wyoming. Belle A. Mansfield becomes the first attorney to join the licensed bar in the United States. Myra Bradwell applies to the Illinois Bar three months later, but is rejected on grounds of her sex. Lemma Barkaloo becomes the first woman law student in the nation.

1873 Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. 130 (1872): The U.S. Supreme Court rules that a state has the right to exclude a married woman from practicing law.

1886 Kate Stoneman becomes the first women admitted to the bar in New York State.

1890 Wyoming becomes the first state to grant women the right to vote in all elections.

1899 National Association of Women Lawyers founded.

1920 The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified.

1934 Florence Allen is appointed by FDR to be the first woman on the federal appellate bench.

1937 Soia Mentschikoff becomes the first woman partner in a major law firm, Spence, Hotchkiss, Parker and Duryea.

1963 The Equal Pay Act is passed by Congress.

1981 Sandra Day O'Connor becomes 1st woman to be sworn into the U.S. Supreme Court followed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993.

Richard Tuske, Chief Librarian
Mina Rieur Weiner, Consulting Curator
Clare Brown, Graphic Designer