February 12, 1831|
Manchester, Vermont, U.S.
|Died||February 14, 1894
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Alma mater||Elgin Female Seminary|
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, and the United States Supreme Court two years later, shortly before her death.
Early and Family Life
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, and assisted him with research and legal writings. Complications arose because of coverture laws, prohibiting married women from holding property, as was even necessary to become a notary public. The Bradwells 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, Bradwell founded the Chicago Legal News, and with her husband's legal help in persuading the Illinois legislature to pass a special law, she was able to serve as both editor and business manager of the Chicago Legal News Company (which also had other publications including stationary and legal forms). Although the paper's offices were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, it continued to publish. The widely-circulated paper published information about court opinions, laws, and court ordinances, and also had a muckraking function--criticizing corruption within the local bar and judiciary and urging railroad regulation. Bradwell also was determined dedicated to change women's status in society, so the paper included a column entitled "Law Relating to Women".
To support women's suffrage and efforts to gain employment, Bradwell helped write the Illinois Married Women's Property Act of 1861 and with Alta M. Hulett the Earnings Act of 1869, both of which allowed married women to control their earnings and property. In August 1869, a federal judge (from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals) and state's attorney examined Bradwell's legal ability, pronounced her qualified and suggested that the Illinois State Supreme Court Issue her a license. 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."
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. Despite the efforts of Senator Matthew Hale Carpenter, who argued on her behalf, that 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:
- Women would not be allowed to practice the law.
- This would open the flood gates and many more women would want to follow in Bradwell's footsteps.
- Brutal cases would not be appropriate for a woman to handle.
- The state was worried about the effect women would have on the administration office.
Thus in 1873, the Supreme Court also denied her to the bar because of her gender.
Meanwhile, 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, although she assisted women in other states attempting to study law and gain law licenses in their states. She insisted that women's equality was a non-partisan issue. In Washington, D.C. Belva Lockwood lobbied Congress to pass a similar anti-discrimination bill to allow women to practice in federal courts, which was finally passed in 1879 and signed into law by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Thus, in 1879, Lockwood became the first woman admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar, and in 1880 the first woman to argue a case before that body, although she was later denied admission to the Virginia bar and in 1893 the United States Supreme court refused to force Virginia to admit her, citing its decision in Bradwell's case. Meanwhile, in 1890, the Illinois Supreme Court acted on its own motion and approved Bradwell's original application. On March 28, 1892, Bradwell received her license to practice before the United States Supreme Court.
Death and Legacy
Myra Bradwell died of cancer on February 14, 1894, just four years after she was admitted to the bar. She is buried in Chicago's Rosehill cemetery. Her daughter, Bessie Bradwell Helmer, continued what her mother started, graduating from the Union College of Law in 1882 and publishing the Chicago Legal News until 1925. Her son Thomas Bradwell also became a lawyer and managed the printing company.
- "I Amerikas Förenta stater", Lördagsqvällen (in Swedish) (15), p. 5, 13 April 1895, retrieved 3 July 2014
- In re Lockwood, 154 U.S. 116, 117 (1893)
- "Bradwell, Myra Colby." Encyclopædia Britannica from "Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service", Accessed February 14, 2006.
- Jones, Marry Harris. "Myra Bradwell: America's First Woman Lawyer."
- Mezey, Susan Gluck. "Bradwell, Myra Colby." American National Biography Online.
- "Myra Bradwell Award.", Minnesota Women Lawyers.
- Schultz, Rima Lunin, and Adele Hast, Women Building Chicago, 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001).