In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve as a justice for the United States Supreme Court. Just over a decade later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman to do so; she still holds that same position today at 84 years old. In 2009, Sonia Sotomayor became the Supreme Court’s third woman justice, as well as its first Hispanic justice in history.
But before these women could make their marks on American society, someone had to pave the way for them.
Her name was Myra Bradwell. She started her career as a publisher, political activist, and supporter of women’s rights, and she ended up as one of America’s first female lawyers, creating a space for women in the law field and making it possible for women to pursue law careers and beyond.
Myra was born in Vermont in 1831, and moved around the country with her family. At the time, colleges did not accept women, so she graduated from an all-women monastery in Illinois and became a teacher.
A short while later, she met and married aspiring lawyer James Bradwell. James was studying to be a lawyer, but because there were very few formal law schools at the time, he had to study law on his own.
Myra studied along with her husband, learning the basics of the field. Myra saw her marriage as a “partnership,” in which she used her own legal knowledge to help her husband in his career.
In the mid-1850s, Myra and James relocated to Chicago, where she raised their four children while he ran a legal practice with her brother, Frank. James ultimately became a county judge and Myra continued to help him, using her own legal knowledge.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Myra got involved with the Sanitary Commission, an organization that petitioned for healthy conditions in the Union’s army camps. During this time, she also worked with Mary Livermore, an American suffragette and social reformer, to organize a successful fundraising fair. Her close relationship with Mary and other suffragettes inspired her passion for the equal right to vote.
In 1868, Myra created a regional legal newspaper called Chicago Legal News. As both editor and business manager, she used the editorial section to support progressive reforms that would broaden women’s rights. The publication soon became one of the leading sources of legal information in the area.
The following year, she called on her legal knowledge to draft a law that would protect married women’s earnings, as well as widows’ rights when applied to their husbands’ estates.
She also took the Illinois bar exam that same year and passed with high honors. Another woman, Arabella Mansfield, had been given a license in Iowa, so Myra expected the same. But instead, the Illinois Supreme Court turned her down, first on the basis that being a married woman classified her as “disabled,” and then on the basis that she was a woman. She appealed to the United States Supreme Court, who also sided with the Illinois Court until 1890, when Myra was officially accepted into the Illinois bar. She spent the time in between her original application and her admittance using her legal knowledge to help women in cases involving insanity and equal admittance into professions. In 1892, Myra was officially licensed as a lawyer, making her one of the first female lawyers in the United States. Unfortunately, Myra lost her battle with cancer two short years later, but her work for women in law changed the world as we know it.
Myra’s persistence and dedication in trying to open the law field to women made it possible for other women pioneers to follow in her footsteps.
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