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

Why celebrate women in the profession?

On January 30, 2014, most ISBA members received a “Save the Date” via e-mail for the Celebrating Women in the Profession Luncheon scheduled for March 13, 2014 at the Union League Club.

I remember thinking that the chosen location was ironic, given the Union League Club’s history of excluding women. Women were banned until 1987 when the City of Chicago passed an ordinance outlawing such exclusionary practices by private clubs.

Soon after the “Save the Date” notice arrived, those of us privy to the ISBA General Discussion Group were reminded that there is still much work to do when it comes to attitudes of exclusion against women. A certain male attorney member of the ISBA thought it worth his while to begin a discussion with the following message:

“Ok, I like women as much as the next guy, and I am willing to tolerate them as lawyers, but I need help. You know how you might see someone for years and not know their name, because after you saw them the first several times you felt it was too late to ask their name?

I find myself, after 20 years of being told to “celebrate” things, almost always progressive concerns, I am afraid to admit I don’t know what it means. I know how Mass is celebrated; I know how Christmas is celebrated; I even know how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated. I just don’t know how to celebrate women. If I end up going to this ISBA luncheon in the loop, I want to be prepared. Do I have to get drunk? Would it be wrong of me to celebrate the incoming male ISBA president?”

As some might expect this message was met with a flurry of backlash commentary, snide remarks and an overall pithy disregard for the ignorant post. I agree this post was rooted in an ignorance that is reserved for those lucky enough to be born into a group that has never had to experience professional barriers because of how they were born. They don’t seem to even notice that professional doors swing wide open for them and slap others away on the backswing.

Nevertheless it got me thinking. I mean really, why do we “celebrate” the fact that women participate in the practice of law. After much contemplation, I think the answer may be…


And we should never forget

The Union League’s first President was none other than James B. Bradwell – the rather open-minded attorney husband of none other than our cherished foremother, Myra Bradwell. For those who may be unfamiliar, Myra Bradwell was the first woman to apply for an Illinois law license and was denied, not only by the State of Illinois, but also by the Supreme Court of the United States.

As the story goes, Myra and James worked side by side in James’ law practice from right after he entered the Illinois Bar. After approximately 15 years in formal apprenticeship in her husband’s law practice, Mrs. Bradwell was quite the force to be reckoned with in Chicago. By the 1870s, she was a well-known staunch advocate of the social standing and professional development of women. In addition to her legal practice, she assisted in authoring of two pieces of legislation, namely the Married Women’s Property Act of 1861 and the Earnings Act of 1869. She founded and served as editor and business manager of the Chicago Legal News, a legal periodical dedicated to the changing status of women that became the most widely circulated national legal periodical in the nation at the time. Using this platform Mrs. Bradwell also attacked corruption. She called out lawyers and judges for incompetence and moral deficiency; she called for railroad regulation, and advocated reforms at the Cook County courthouse. She was also a founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. While doing all of this work, Ms. Bradwell had four children, two of whom died very young.

With the support of an Illinois Seventh Circuit judge, Mrs. Bradwell applied to be the first women accepted to the Illinois bar in 1869. Her application was denied on the grounds that as a married woman, she had no status to enter into legal contracts, as lawyers must do in their profession.

With her husband’s help she attained a special charter exempting her from the laws prohibiting married women from entering into contracts and then applied again. However, on February 5, 1870, the Illinois Supreme Court again denied her claim on the basis of sex. Chief Justice Charles B. Lawrence stated in his opinion, “God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action.”

Bradwell ultimately appealed to the United States Supreme Court, on the basis that Illinois refusing to admit her to the bar because she was female violated her 14th Amendment rights. Sadly, the Supreme Court held 7 to 1 that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not include the right to practice a profession. Although the majority opinion did not include supportive reasoning on the basis of her sex, Justice Joseph Bradley wrote in his concurring opinion,

The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life... [T]he paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.

Bradwell v. State of Illinois, 83 U.S. 130 (1873).

Although Mrs. Bradwell was denied admission to the Illinois Bar, she fought hard for the rest of us. While her own appeal was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, another woman, Alta M. Hulett was also denied admission to the Illinois Bar. With Bradwell as her mentor and lobbyist Hulett drafted a bill to prohibit the state from excluding women from any profession except the military on the basis of sex. The bill became Illinois law in 1872 and Hulett became the first woman lawyer in Illinois the following year.

Although Bradwell never again applied for acceptance into the Illinois Bar, her peers (meaning male attorneys of her day) considered her one of them anyway. She was an honorary member of our own Illinois State Bar Association from 1879 onward and was involved in the creation of the Chicago Bar Association. In 1890, the Illinois Supreme Court, on its own motion approved Myra Bradwell’s original application. Myra Bradwell died of cancer in 1894, not yet four years after being welcomed into this profession

It is in the spirit of Myra Bradwell, Alta Hulett and the other female pioneers who fought against the norms of their day so to allow us to achieve the norms of our day, (where women attorneys, judges and bar leaders are commonplace), that we will gather together to celebrate women in the profession of law. We will raise our glasses to the fact that in the last 141 years we have grown from one female member of the Illinois Bar to thousands. We will stand in applause for our current ISBA President, the formidable Paula Hudson Holderman. We will stand at the ready to mentor the female graduates of our Illinois law schools, who in some cases make up 50% of their class roster. Through all of this celebration we will ensure that we do not forget what it took for us to get here and we will undoubtedly inspire one another to continue advancing the profession of law. ■


Julia A. Neubauer is an attorney with the law firm of Aronberg Goldgehn Davis & Garmisa.

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