America’s first woman lawyer, Myra Bradwell (1831–1894), never practiced law, yet she became one of the most influential people in the legal profes-sion. Through her publication of the monthly Chicago Legal News, she initiated many legal and social reforms. Bradwell eventually was offered ad-mittance to the Illinois bar, making her the first woman attorney in the United States.
Myra Bradwell was born Myra Colby on February 12, 1831, in Manchester, Vermont. She was the youngest of five children of Eben and AbigailWilley Colby. Both parents were descendents of Boston settlers and were active abolitionists. Shortly after Bradwell’s birth, the family moved to Portage, New York, where they lived until 1843. They then moved to Shaumberg, Illinois, near Chicago. Education for young girls in the nineteenth century often meant attend-ance at a finishing school or female seminary, which provided a broad education in literature and the arts and trained girls for their roles as wives and mothers. Bradwell attended finishing school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where she lived with a married sister. She completed her education at the Elgin Female Seminary in Illinois and later taught at the seminary for one year.
While attending the seminary, Bradwell met James Bolesworth Bradwell, a Tennessee law student who was visiting Elgin. James Bradwell came from a family of poor English immigrants. He financed his education by doing manual labor, a fact that led the Colby family to disapprove of him as a suitor for Myra. When the couple eloped a few months after meeting, Myra’s brother pursued them with a shotgun in an attempt to stop the marriage. Nevertheless, they were married in Chicago on May 18, 1852.The Bradwells moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where they opened a private school. James continued to study law and was admitted to the Tennessee bar. Bradwell had their first child, a daughter named Myra, in 1854. The couple subsequently had three other children: Thomas in 1856, Bessie in 1858, and James in 1862. Young Myra died at the age of 7 and James died at 2.After Myra’s birth, the Bradwells returned to Chicago, where James continued to study law. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1855 and formed a law partnership with Myra’s brother, Frank Colby.
Myra Bradwell Studied Law
In 1861, James Bradwell was elected a Cook County judge. He served one term and returned to his law practice a few years later. Bradwell wanted to work with her husband in his law practice. During the mid-nineteenth century, there were two ways to learn law: attend law school or study law under the supervision of a practicing attorney. As a woman, Bradwell was prohibited from attending law school, so she read law with James. According to biographer Jane M. Friedman in America’s First Woman Lawyer: The Biography of Myra Bradwell, Bradwell said in an 1889 Chicago Tribune article, ‘‘I acquired the idea [of studying law] from helping my husband in his office. I was always with him, helping in whatever way I could. . . . I believe that married people should share the same toil and the same interests and be separated in no way. It is the separation of interests and labor that develops people in opposite directions and makes them grow apart. If they worked side by side and thought side by side we would need no divorce courts.’’
Bradwell’s studies were put on hold when the Civil War began. During the war, Bradwell became involved with charitable endeavors that raised funds for the sick and wounded Union soldiers. Bradwell and suffragist Mary Livermore organized the Northwestern Sanitary Fair in Chicago in 1865. As secretary of the Arms, Trophies, and Curiosities Committee, Bradwell was in charge of one of the fair’s two exhibits, which featured a collection of Union flags, captured Confederate flags, trophies, and war curios. Bradwell also served as president of the Chicago Soldiers’ Aid Society, which sponsored two other fairs to raise funds for soldiers’ families. At the conclusion of the war, Bradwell returned to her studies and in 1869, when she was 38 years old, she passed the Illinois bar exam with high honors and applied to practice law in Illinois.
At the time, women were prohibited from practicing law in the United States. However, an Iowa teacher, Arabella Mansfield, had recently been granted a law license, although she did not practice. Mansfield’s admittance to the profession did not cause a stir, so Bradwell hoped her attempt would not attract attention. However, the Illinois Supreme Court denied her request, stating that as a married woman, she was unfit to practice law. Bradwell filed a brief challenging the court’s decision and the court responded, this time denying her admittance simply because she was a woman. Friedman reported that the court argued, among other things, that if it allowed women to practice law, ‘‘every civil office in this state may be filled by women—that is . . . [would follow] that women should be made governors and sheriffs.’’Bradwell appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. She hired Senator Matthew H. Carpenter of Wisconsin to represent her. He was one of the country’s best constitutional lawyers and an advocate of women’s rights. However, the court denied her appeal in 1873.
Published Chicago Legal News
By the time the Supreme Court ruled on Bradwell’s appeal, she was already well known as a lawyer, despite the Illinois bar’s denial. Bradwell gained her reputation in the legal community through a publication she founded in 1868 called the Chicago Legal News. The newspaper offered synopses of legal opinions and news for the Chicago legal community. Bradwell was the paper’s publisher, business manager, and editor-in-chief. In addition to legal news and synopses of legal opinions, the paper contained Bradwell’s writings advocating a number of issues. The paper was popular throughout the country and for two decades was the most widely circulated legal newspaper in the United States. Through the Chicago Legal News, Bradwell was instrumental in enacting legislation granting many rights to women. Among these rights was the right to pursue any occupation a woman chose.
The Chicago Legal News began publication on Octo-ber 3, 1868. According to Friedman, Bradwell outlined the purpose of the publication in the first issue: ‘‘The News will be . . . devoted to legal information, general news, the publication of new and important decisions, and of other matters useful to the practicing lawyer or man of business.’’ This brief description falls short of articulating the value of the Chicago Legal News. Bradwell made sure that the publication was indispensable to every lawyer in Illinois, and eventually the nation. She did this by publishing newly enacted statutes before the Illinois legislature did, making the Chicago Legal News the only source of this information for lawyers and judges. The statutes printed in the Chicago Legal News were valid as evidence in court, making a subscription to the publication an essential tool for lawyers.Within fourteen months of its inception, the Chicago Legal News was the official medium for reporting actions of the state legislature.
After the newspaper had earned its reputation in Illinois, Bradwell expanded its subject matter to judicial decisions of the United States Supreme Court and all lower federal courts in the country. Thus, it became the most widely read legal newspaper in the United States. Bradwell also founded the Chicago Legal News Company, which printed legal forms, stationery, and briefs. Bradwell’s company was thriving when the great Chicago fire occurred in 1871. Despite the destruction of her offices and most of the city, Bradwell saved the subscription book for the newspaper and when she resumed publishing from a temporary office in Milwaukee, she capitalized on the losses caused by the fire. Recognizing that lawyers in Chicago would have to replace their lost law libraries, she solicited advertisements from legal book publishers. In addition, Bradwell printed and sold back copies of the Chicago Legal News to replace those that were lost in the fire. The Illinois legislature designated the Chicago Legal News as the official publisher of all legal records lost in the fire.
Legal news was not the only component of the newspaper. Bradwell used the paper to advocate many social and legal reforms and women’s issues. She started out with local reform. She decried conditions at the county poor house, encouraged the investigation of jury bribery, and printed humiliating accounts of judges’ behavior to weed out heavy drinkers. She also criticized the filthy conditions at the Cook County Courthouse. Bradwell often used humor to get her point across. Bradwell never again requested entry into the Illinois bar, but in 1890, the Illinois Supreme Court granted her a law license. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit. Since both courts granted the license as of the date of her original application, Bradwell is known as the first woman lawyer in the United States. Bradwell was also the first woman to join a bar association.
Advocated Women’s Rights
Women’s issues were very important to Bradwell. Having been denied her law license, she was keen on gaining the right for women to practice the profession of their choice. James Bradwell served for some time in the Illinois state legislature, and Myra often drafted legislation that he ushered into law. While Bradwell waited for the Supreme Court to rule on her request to be admitted to the bar, she and another woman who had been refused a law license drafted a statute that gave all people, men and women, the right to select any profession or occupation. Bradwell initially drafted the legislation in order to help other women become lawyers, but the legislation served to help women gain entry into all professions. The Chicago Legal News served as her mouthpiece in urging passage of the legislation.In 1873, she drafted a bill that James introduced that gave women the right to run for office in the Illinois public school system. The bill passed, allowing women to be elected to an office for which they themselves could not vote. Other legislation James Bradwell ushered through the state legislature allowed women to become notaries public, a right Myra had been denied; allowed women to keep their own earnings; and gave them equal rights to the custody of their children. At the time, men had absolute custody of their minor unmarried children, even if they were unfit fathers. In the case of divorce, women were never granted custody. Fathers could even dispose of the custody and give the child to someone other than the mother.
Bradwell also advocated for the rights of people in institutions, including women, children, the mentally ill, and inmates. In Illinois and other states, a married woman could be declared insane by her husband and put in an asylum without a hearing. Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard was responsible for passage of two laws that prohibited men from institutionalizing their wives without a jury trial and order of a court. A ‘‘private madhouse’’ bill was introduced to nullify the Packard bill and reintroduced in various forms for twenty years. Bradwell campaigned against the bill in the Chicago Legal News. She was largely responsible for the bill never being enacted.A similar issue that Bradwell was involved in was the confinement of her friend Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of President Abraham Lincoln. Mary Lincoln was incarcerated in an insane asylum in 1875 by her son, Robert, who claimed she was insane. Some historians believe that Mary Lincoln’s commitment was the result of a conspiracy orchestrated by Robert, who feared she would become his financial charge someday. When Bradwell learned of her friend’s confinement, she immediately tried to secure her release. Bradwell’s advocacy helped secure Lincoln’s release after about four months.
Worked for Women’s Suffrage
Bradwell was very involved in the women’s suffrage movement and was one of the Midwest’s most notable suffragists. Friedman speculated that Bradwell has been ignored as a leader of the suffrage movement because of differences with Susan B. Anthony, the movement’s leading historical figure. But Bradwell’s audience of lawyers, judges, and lawmakers gave her enormous influence as a women’s rights advocate. The rift between Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other suffragists occurred over a disagreement about supporting the 14th and 15th amend-ments. Anthony and Stanton, of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, did not support the amendments that gave black people the right to vote because they felt the amendment should also have included women. Lucy Stone, Bradwell, and other suffragists disagreed and urged a break with Anthony and Stanton.
They formed a second women’s suffrage organization, the American Women’s Suffrage Association. Bradwell served as the corresponding secretary of the group’s first convention. James was temporary chair.In 1876, Bradwell was appointed a member of the Illinois Centennial Association, to represent the state in the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In 1888, she helped secure the 1892 World’s Fair for Chicago. In 1891, she was diagnosed with cancer, but continued to work for the fair, which she visited in a wheelchair, despite her illness. She died February 14, 1894, at the age of 63, in Chicago, Illinois.Bradwell was survived by her husband James and her grown children, Bessie and Thomas. Both children lived with their parents even after marrying and having children of their own. Both became lawyers. Bessie Helmer continued the Chicago Legal News until 1925 and also followed in her mother’s footsteps as an advocate for women’s rights.
Bird, Caroline, Enterprising Women, W.W. Norton & Co., 1976. Friedman, Jane M., America’s First Woman Lawyer: The Biogra-
phy of Myra Bradwell, Prometheus Books, 1993.
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Commire, Yorkin Publications, 1999.
‘‘Myra Bradwell,’’ Biography Resource Center, Gale Group,2003.