when pigs fly … expect the unbelievable

Archive for May 11th, 2009

Lawyering Up

Posted on: May 11, 2009

Saturday was my birthday.  I realized on Saturday that I had been a lawyer a lot longer than I had been anything else in my life, except female — and except perhaps a voracious reader.  I graduated from law school in 1975 (I was a prodigy) and passed the Alabama bar later that year, returning to Mississippi in November of 1977 and passing the Mississippi bar in February of 1978.  Yes, I am one of those very few individuals of a certain age that can prove by my score that I deserve to be a lawyer!

Thirty-four years of lawyering.  It seems like such a long time and yet it seems like yesterday.  But women did not always have that opportunity.  Can you imagine it?  Dreaming of something that you simply couldn’t do?

A hundred years before I started law school, although there were women lawyers in America (mostly having read law under the tutelage of a man) they were not members of bar associations.  Myra Bradwell began to change all that.

Myra Bradwell was a lawyer who had read law under her husband, who was a prominent Chicago attorney and served as a county judge.  She published a newspaper called the “Chicago Legal News” (she had obtained a special charter from the Illinois Legislature to allow her to publish this newspaper in her own name — she was a married woman!).  During her tenure with the News, she authored the Illinois Married Women’s Property Act of 1869. This act allowed women in Illinois to own property in their own names and to control their own earnings.

Coming off such a great victory, Myra Bradwell sought admission to the Illinois bar.  And she passed.  But she was not admitted to the Illinois bar due to the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court that, as a married woman, she was not a free agent to practice law.  Bradwell appealed to the United States Supreme Court, arging that among the privileges and immunities granted to each citizen of the U.S. by the 14th amendment was the right to pursue any honorable profession.

The United States Supreme Court didn’t see it that way.  The majority of the Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Samuel F. Miller, stated that the right to practice law in the courts of any particular state was a right that had to be granted by that individual state; it was not a right governed by privileges and immunities of national citizenship.  Justice Joseph P. Bradley, while agreeing with the majority, authored a separate opinion which is remembered more today in circles of women lawyers.  Justice Bradley said:  The civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman.  Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender.  The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life….The harmony, not to say identify, of interests and views which belongs or should belong to the family institution, is repubnant to the idea of a woman adopting a career distinct and independent from that of her husband….The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. 

Women who don’t share my cultural history (which I define — thank you Ginny Mounger — as women who do not have an independent recollection of the Vietnam War) do not realize what a young and tender right they have to be a lawyer in America.  They need to understand that what is given can be taken away.  They need to lawyer up with vigilance — even hypervigilance — to retain this right.

What happened to Myra Bradwell?  While her case was pending in the United States Supreme Court, Alta M. Hulett, who had also been refused admission to the Illinois bar although she was otherwise qualified, successfully lobbied for a law, passed in 1972, which granted freedom of occupational choice to all citizens of Illinois, both male and female.  Thereafter, Ms. Hulett presented to the Illionis Supreme Court and was sworn in as the first female member of the Illinois bar. 

Myra Bradwell did not thereafter seek admission to the bar.  She explained her position on the issue in her newspaper:  “having once complied with the rules and regulations of the court…[I] decline to…again ask for admission.”

In 1890, the Illinois Supreme Court admitted Bradwell to the bar.  [It is my understanding that Mrs. Bradwell had been diagnosed with an incurable illness and her husband lobbied for her admission.] Two years before her death in 1894 she was admitted to practice before the U. S. Supreme Court.

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