June 2014Volume 7Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Myra Bradwell: The practice of law in the wake of her legacy

As women attorneys, we do not spend most days dwelling on the struggles that those who have come before us in our profession have endured. We just work, going about the task of building our practices and serving our clients. Achieving true equality with our male professional counterparts should render our gender wholly arbitrary. With each new generation of attorneys graduating from law school, we come closer to that goal.

Nevertheless, there is an inherent value in understanding our history or herstory, if you will. It gives us perceptive; sometimes it even gives us pause. On a chilly day in March, on the campus of Northern Illinois University, we found ourselves in the presence of herstory alive today. The ISBA Standing Committee on Women and the Law with co-sponsor Standing Committee on Race and Ethnic Minorities brought together the past and the present in a compelling presentation. We were first brought back to the beginning of our participation in this profession and then we experienced just how far we have come.

In a crowded auditorium, over 100 eager attendees enjoyed a wonderful performance by Jenner & Block litigation attorney (and trained actor), Rachel Morse. Morse brought us back to the mid to late 1800s in a dramatic rendition of the tenacious and spirited Myra Bradwell. Mrs. Bradwell had a dream of becoming a lawyer and although she was a worthy contender, she was repeatedly rejected based solely on the fact that she was female. Ms. Morse delivered a flawless performance using excerpts of actual court records and other historical documents. She brought Bradwell’s trailblazing story to life and captivated the audience.

Following Ms. Morse’s performance, a panel comprised of eight distinguished jurists and female leaders took the stage. ISBA President Paula Holderman moderated the panel and took us on a generational journey through the stories and experiences of each panelist. We learned so much about the challenges and triumphs each speaker faced during their careers. It was truly remarkable to have such a power panel on a Friday afternoon at Northern Illinois University School of Law. Never before has Illinois simultaneously had a female Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, a female Chief Judge of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, three female justices total on the Illinois Supreme Court and a female President of the Illinois State Bar Association. To have all of these notable women come together on stage, along with three additional female Appellate Court justices and a leader in the movement for attaining gender equality in the legal profession, sharing their experiences with us was nothing short of herstory in the making.

A very special thanks to the Honorable Chief Judge Diane P. Wood, Chief Justice Rita B. Garman, Justice Anne M. Burke, Justice Mary Jane Theis, Justice Joy Virginia Cunningham, Justice Shelvin Louise Marie Hall, Justice Susan F. Hutchinson, and Jennifer K. Gust for sharing their stories with us. Your openness and willingness to share deeply personal and professional challenges took tremendous courage and we are forever grateful.

Mary F. Petruchius, Chair of the Standing Committee on Women and the Law and Melody Mitchell of NIU College of Law coordinated this outstanding, unforgettable program.

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