October 2013Volume 51Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Reflections on Blackstones Event

On August 22, 2013, 120 years after the first gathering in Chicago, the female, and this time, supporting male Blackstones, gathered to celebrate women past, present, and future. This event, hosted by Winston & Strawn, the Seventh Circuit Bar Association President Julie A. Bauer, and Illinois State Bar Association President Paula H. Holderman, was an auspicious gathering of talented and dedicated attorneys, professors, and judges. The Blackstones had originally gathered during the 1893 World’s Fair and were comprised of professional women who were excluded from the planning of the Fair. These women formed the Queen Isabella Association, with the goal to fight for women’s suffrage and advancement in historically male professions. The term of “Blackstone” came from the Chicago Legal News.

The first panel celebrated the Blackstones’ accomplishments from 1893 to 2013, and included panelists Gwen Hoerr Jordan, assistant professor at Northern Illinois University College of Law, Justice Ann Claire Williams of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Justice Rita B. Garmen of the Fourth District, and Dean Nina S. Appel, of Loyola University Chicago School of Law. I was inspired to be among the diverse subset of panelists, and amazed by the stories they told of the talent, success, and unbending spirit of so many women in the face of adversity.

There was much to learn and take in during both panels. I want to highlight just a few historical figures that captured my attention that afternoon.

• Ada Kepley was the first woman to graduate from law school, and she graduated from the University of Chicago Law School.

• Myra Bradwell was one of the first women to apply for admission to the Illinois bar. She was denied at first because she was a “married woman,” so it was said that the laws of coverture prohibited her from entering into contracts. When pressed on the issue, the Bar admitted it was really just because she was a woman. When the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, in Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. 130 (1873), the Court ruled that there is no right to practice law protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and Illinois was allowed to reject her application. Ultimately, Ms. Bradwell reapplied to the Bar and was admitted in 1890. It was Ms. Bradwell who held the protest meeting at the World Fair in 1893, because outside of a focus on charity, there were no events for women. Ms. Bradwell was clearly a leader both of and ahead of her time.

• There was much discussion of African-American lawyers and judges. Most interesting was Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary by President Linden B. Johnson in 1966. She was employed as a maid, and in her spare time gave lectures. A man who heard her speak was so impressed that he offered to pay her tuition through undergraduate and law school.

One constant theme that women perpetually experienced, throughout even the twentieth century as they endeavored to become professionals and academics, was skepticism as to “why you think that you can take the place of a man.” When interviewing, women were asked not of their school record, interests in law, or professional experience, but rather whether they could type and make coffee, and what methods of birth control they planned to use. Themes of domesticity often supplanted substantive questions evidencing concern with professional competency and talent. The presenters emphasized their satisfaction upon hearing that younger attorneys who hear these stories for the first time, are genuinely shocked, because this discrimination and treatment is rarely experienced, and certainly no longer the norm. I believe the take-away from the day was to be thankful for those who have paved the way for women to be practicing in the numbers that we are now, and certainly that women in the legal profession are no longer simply stewards of fresh coffee. But also that there is still much progress to be made to truly be on par with men professionally; and, as our sisters before us have done, we too must put equality at the forefront of importance. ■


Erin M. Wilson is an associate at O’Connor Family Law, P.C.  She has been on the Young Lawyers Division of the ISBA since 2009 and this is her first year on the Standing Committee for Women & the Law.

Login to post comments