Myra Bradwell

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Myra Bradwell
Myra Bradwell 1870.png
Myra Bradwell c. 1870.
Born (1831-02-12)February 12, 1831
Manchester, Vermont
Died February 14, 1894(1894-02-14) (aged 63)
Chicago, Illinois
Occupation Lawyer
Known for Bradwell v. Illinois

Myra Colby Bradwell (February 12, 1831 – February 14, 1894) was a publisher and political activist. She attempted to become the first woman to be admitted to the Illinois bar, but was denied admission by the Illinois Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. The Illinois Supreme Court finally granted her a law license in Illinois in 1890.


Myra Colby was born on February 12, 1831, in Manchester, Vermont. She was the daughter of Eben Colby and Abigail Willey. She lived in Vermont and Western New York during her childhood. When Bradwell was twelve she moved to Schaumburg, Illinois, with her family. She attended schools in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and later enrolled in Elgin Female Seminary in Illinois. She completed her formal education by age 24. She became a school teacher after she graduated (Jones). In 1852, Myra Colby married James B. Bradwell and she became Myra Colby Bradwell. Two years later they moved to Memphis, Tennessee. James Bradwell was the head of a private school and Myra Bradwell became a teacher in that school. In 1855 they moved to Chicago, where James Bradwell was admitted to the Chicago Bar. He became a successful lawyer, judge, and in 1873 he was elected to the General Assembly.

A few years after marrying James Bradwell, Myra Bradwell started her formal law training when her husband was accepted to the Illinois Bar. There she apprenticed as a lawyer in her husband's office. There were some complications that came up during her rise to becoming a lawyer. She had four children, and two of them died at an early age. She raised funds to help aid the wounded soldiers during the American Civil War. She was also a member of the Northwestern Sanitary Commission. In 1868, she founded the Chicago Legal News, and with her husband's legal help, she was able to serve as both editor and business manager of the paper. It was the most widely circulated legal newspaper in the United States (Mezey). Bradwell dedicated her newspaper to changing women's status in society, and she included a column in the paper entitled "Law Relating to Women". She published information about court opinions, laws, and court ordinances. She supported women's suffrage reforms, efforts to gain employment for women, railroad regulation, and improvement of court systems (Mezey).

She assisted in writing the Illinois Married Women's Property Act of 1861 and the Earnings Act of 1869. These were to give married women control over their earnings and property. In August 1869, the Illinois Seventh Circuit Judge examined Bradwell's legal ability. He pronounced her qualified and suggested that the Illinois State Supreme Court Issue her a license;[1] however, her application was denied on the grounds that as a married woman, she could not enter into any legal contracts, as lawyers do in their profession. On February 5, 1870, the Illinois high court again denied her claim on the basis of sex. Chief Justice Charles B. Lawrence stated that "God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action." Finally, Bradwell appealed to the United States Supreme Court, claiming that refusing to admit her to the bar because she was female violated her 14th Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court held 7 to 1 that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not include the right to practice a profession. Justice Joseph Bradley wrote, "The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life... [T]he paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator." Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 130 (1873).

The court's reasoning was fourfold:

  1. Women would not be allowed to practice the law.
  2. This would open the flood gates and many more women would want to follow in Bradwell's footsteps.
  3. Brutal cases would not be appropriate for a woman to handle.
  4. The state was worried about the effect women would have on the administration office.

Bradwell felt that she was being treated unfairly and decided to take her concerns to the United States Supreme Court, but, in 1873, the Supreme Court also denied her to the bar because of her gender. In 1872, the Illinois legislature passed a law stating, "No person shall be precluded or debarred from any occupation, profession, or employment (except the military) on account of gender". Bradwell continued to work on the Chicago Legal News where she was the journals publisher, business manager, and editor in chief.

She also became an active member in the women's suffrage movement, serving as Secretary of the Illinois Women Suffrage Association. Bradwell made no further proceedings to gain her license. In 1890, the Illinois Supreme Court acted on its own motion and approved her original application. In 1892, she received her license to practice before the United States Supreme Court.


Myra Bradwell died of cancer on February 14, 1894, just four years after she was admitted to the bar. Her daughter, Bessie Bradwell Helmer, continued what her mother started. Bessie Bradwell became a lawyer, as did Thomas Bradwell, her son.


  1. ^ "I Amerikas Förenta stater", Lördagsqvällen (in Swedish) (15), 13 April 1895: 5, retrieved 3 July 2014