Myra Bradwell and the Struggle for Women's Legal Equality
Myra Colby was born in 1831 in Vermont. Her family moved to Illinois in 1843. After attending a female seminary, she taught school in Illinois, where she met James Bradwell, who she married in 1852. In 1855, James was admitted to the Illinois bar and opened a practice with Myra's brother. Myra began publishing the Chicago Legal News, which reported on state and federal court decisions and legislative developments, in 1868. Her business also published Illinois session laws and legal forms. The Legal News was a successful business venture, an unusual accomplishment for a middle-class, married woman at the time. While at the helm of the Legal News, Myra advocated legal and political equality for women and, with her husband's support, used his position as a state legislator and chairman of the State Bar Association to do the same.
Early in their marriage, Myra began studying law under James. She applied for admission to the Illinois bar in 1869. Although she had the certificate of qualification necessary for admission, the state Supreme Court denied her application on the grounds that as a married woman she had legal disabilities that would make her unable to practice. After filing a brief arguing that common law and the Married Women's Acts implied the right to contract and that a woman had been admitted to the Iowa state bar despite a provision in its laws using only male pronouns. This time the court ruled that Myra's sex alone was grounds to deny her admission, and that the state legislature never intended women to be admitted to the bar.
In January 1870, Myra appealed to the United States Supreme Court, claiming that Illinois' denial of her application to the bar violated the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Her attorney, Matthew Carpenter, argued that the clause guaranteed all citizens the same privileges and immunities, that law, like any profession, was included in the phrase guaranteeing each person the "pursuit of happiness" and that the states were barred from excluding a class of citizens from a profession under the guise of fixing qualifications for it.
The Court announced its decision in the Slaughterhouse Cases on April 14, 1873. The majority interpreted the Privileges and Immunities Clause narrowly, holding that the only privileges and immunities protected were those that owed their existence to the federal government. Under this interpretation, freedom of enterprise and occupation was not included. The next day, the Court upheld the Illinois high court's denial of Myra's application to the state bar. The Slaughterhouse majority easily held that the right to practice law was not a privilege of United States citizenship. Justice Bradley, who dissented in the Slaughterhouse Cases, sided with the majority in Bradwell. He asserted that female citizens' privileges were more restricted than those of male citizens, and that one of the privileges men had and women lacked was the privilege to engage in the profession of their choosing. Bradley based his decision on the concept that men and women operated in separate spheres, that women were too delicate for many professions and that the home was the appropriate location for women's work. Ignoring the Illinois Married Women's Acts, he relied on the common law doctrine that married women could not contract without their husbands' permission.
Disappointed, Myra never reapplied for admission to the Illinois bar, even though an 1872 act allowed women to be admitted. She was admitted to the state bar in 1880, on the Illinois Supreme Court's own motion, and to the United States Supreme Court bar two years later. Myra died in 1894, never having practiced law. Nevertheless, she was known as the country's first woman lawyer and devoted her life to achieving legal equality for women.
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