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The Catalyst
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

February 2004, vol. 9, no. 3

The remarkable life and times of Alta May Hulett

Remembered best as the first woman attorney admitted to the Illinois bar, Alta May Hulett's brief legal career was remarkable. Joining forces with Myra Bradwell, Illinois' first woman attorney, Ms. Hulett succeeded in passing legislation prohibiting sexual discrimination in employment practices and ensured the right for all women attorneys to join the bar and practice law.

Alta May Hulett was born on June 4, 1854 in Rockton, Winnebago County, Illinois. She graduated from Rockford High School in 1870 at the age of 16. Ms. Hulett started her career as a schoolteacher but quickly decided to follow other prominent lawyers in her family and study law. She engaged in a self-taught course of reading law each evening following a day in the classroom teaching. Within a few months, she clerked in the law office of prominent Rockford attorney William Lathrop to continue her legal studies. At the time she pursued her legal studies, the Illinois Supreme Court already had denied Myra Bradwell's application for admission to the bar and the case was on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Undeterred by the possible obstacles, she continued her legal studies and passed the bar examination in 1871. She applied for admission to the Illinois bar and the Illinois Supreme Court quickly denied her petition because she was a woman. Opposed to taking an appeal of the decision as Myra Bradwell did, Ms. Hulett decided to try to enter the bar by changing the law.

At the age of 18, she began a strenuous campaign lobbying the Illinois legislature as well as garnering public support for a law making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex. The bill read as follows:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the People of the State of Illinois, represented by the general assembly: That no person shall be precluded or debarred from any occupation, profession, or employment (except military) on account of sex; provided that the act shall not be construed to affect the eligibility of any person to an elective office.

In her lobbying efforts, Ms. Hulett used the same two basic arguments she forwarded in her bar application which had been denied by the Illinois Supreme Court. First, she argued that women as human beings had the right to be attorneys. Second, and possibly more controversial at the time, she argued that women had the same ability and intellectual capacity as men and therefore could practice on an equal level.

A short eight months later, Ms. Hulett's bill was signed into law. Illinois legislators had slightly amended the bill, inserting military service and road construction as exceptions to women's open access to occupations. Illinois was the first state to enact a law giving women access to the legal profession. The law also was the first piece of legislation in the country which prohibited sex discrimination in employment.

For Alta May Hulett, the law simply opened the legal profession to women, allowing each the opportunity to practice law. In 1873, Ms. Hulett was required to take the bar for a second time and passed the examination with the highest score. At the age of 19, Alta May Hulett became the first woman in Illinois admitted to the bar.

Ms. Hulett entered practice immediately in Chicago, earning the respect of the male-dominated bar as a strong advocate for her clients. Ms. Hulett's career was characterized as exceptional and it was noted she never lost a jury trial. Ms. Hulett also was the first woman in Illinois to hold the office of Notary Public and one of the first admitted to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Ms. Hulett's legal career was tragically cut short when she was diagnosed with pulmonary consumption in November of 1876. The illness forced her early retirement from law and she moved to California, hoping a warmer climate would improve her health. Friends said that Ms. Hulett was heartbroken that she could no longer practice law and feared her case would be used by men opposed to women lawyers as proof that women were too weak to practice law. Alta May Hulett died on March 26, 1877 before her 23rd birthday.

Alta May Hulett opened the legal profession in Illinois, and throughout the United States, for all women. She fought to ensure the equality of women during a time of great inequality. Another pioneering woman attorney, Grace Harte, wrote a tribute to Ms. Hulett noting her devotion and dedication to women in the legal profession. Ms. Harte's tribute is as applicable today as it was in the past:

Even among the late comers in the profession of law her name and works are not the living force they are entitled to be. What she did for those that followed and are still unconsciously following in her footsteps, is not fully appreciated and the smooth path she has left for them to follow is taken as a matter of course.