February 2014Volume 19Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Rebels at the Bar, by Jill Norgren

The subtitle of this book is, “The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers,”1 and the book largely lives up to that billing. Professor Jill Norgren tells the stories of several female pioneers in the legal profession, including, of course, Illinois’ own Myra Bradwell, who was initially denied admission to the bar and who unsuccessfully appealed her case the U.S. Supreme Court. Other stories include that of Lavinia Goodell, one of the first female lawyers in Wisconsin; Belva Lockwood, the first woman admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court; Clara Foltz, who successfully sued for admission to law school in California; Mary Hall, Connecticut’s first female attorney; Catherine Waugh McCulloch, the first female justice of the peace in Illinois; Leila Robinson, author of Law Made Easy and founder of The Green Bag; and her close friend and Boston attorney, Mary Greene.

Some common themes emerge from reading these stories. Most important, the reader cannot help but be impressed by the perseverance shared by all these women. Many of them were initially refused admission to the bar, but did not let that stop them. Many of them turned to the legislature seeking legal reform when the courts would not admit them. Belva Lockwood had to secure enactment of legislation prohibiting discrimination before the U.S. Supreme Court would admit her to practice. Many also pursued multiple careers, including publishing (Myra Bradwell and Leila Robinson), the professional lecture circuit (Clara Foltz), teaching, public office (Belva Lockwood), etc. Many of these career choices were a matter of necessity. Male attorneys often were leery of having women counterparts and many clients were leery of hiring a female lawyer. Thus, these pioneers had to find other ways to support themselves financially.

Another theme was the connection between the fight for suffrage for women and the fight for admission to the bar. A common objection women faced in securing positions of public trust, such as officers of the court or public defenders, was the fact that they could not vote.

Men were both the women’s greatest problem and their greatest asset. The judge who wrote the opinion denying Lavinia Goodell’s application to the bar, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Edward Ryan, wrote an essay called “Mrs. Jellybelly,” in which he argued that women could only accomplish their social destiny by marrying and that any position of a woman in society taking her away from the home “is a prostitution of her sex and a heresy to nature.”2 When Catherine Waugh applied for a legal job after graduating from law school, one attorney told her she should go home and take in sewing.3 Arguments against women’s admission to the bar included “the unsexing of women who enter public life; the expected neglect of families; the anticipated link between liberalization of work laws and demands for suffrage; and . . . that the duties involved in the exercise of the privilege [of the franchise] should only be imposed upon men.”4

Other men were more sympathetic. Women needed male lawyers to teach them, lend them law books, and sponsor them for admission to the bar. For example, Pliny Norcross sponsored Lavinia Goodell for admission to the Wisconsin bar,5 and Judge Robert Morrison issued a decision clearing the way for Clara Foltz to attend Hastings Law School.6 Sympathetic male legislators often proposed legal reforms that cleared the way for women to be admitted to the bar.

Some of the questions debated by these early female lawyers continue to have relevance today. They struggled with questions of how to dress in the courtroom. For example, they debated whether they should wear hats in the courtroom, as was the norm for women of the day, or whether they should emulate their male counterparts and remove their hats. Women lawyers also developed support networks, such as the Equity Club, where these early female lawyers shared their frustrations, strategies, and successes through letter-writing.

Women also changed the law, often engaging in legal reform beyond laws that particularly affected women, such as coverture. Lavinia Goodell was particularly concerned about the treatment of prisoners; Leila Robinson brought the law to the people through her writings such as Law Made Easy; and female lawyers in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia created the first legal aid societies.

Reading the book reminded me of how lucky I am to be living in the time and place I do and reminded me to be grateful for the courageous and determined women attorneys who made my career choices possible. ■


Cindy Galway Buys is a Professor and Director of International Law Programs at Southern Illinois University School of law where she co-directs an annual Women in Leadership workshop. She is a Member of the Women and the Law Committee and co-editor of The Catalyst. She also is a member of the International and Immigration Section Council of the Illinois State Bar Association.


1. Jill Norgren, Rebels at the Bar (NYU Press 2013).

2. Id. at 60.

3. Id. at 147.

4. Id. at 161,

5. Id. at 53.

6. Id. at 115.

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