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Myra Bradwell

Legal Pioneer

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Dates: February 12, 1831 - February 14, 1894

Occupation: lawyer, publisher, reformer, teacher

Known for: pioneer woman lawyer, first woman in U.S. to practice law, subject of Bradwell v. Illinois Supreme Court decision, author of legislation for women's rights; first woman member of the Illinois Bar Association; first woman member of the Illinois Press Association; founding member of the Illinois Woman's Press Association, the oldest organization of professional women writers

Also known as: Myra Colby, Myra Colby Bradwell

More About Myra Bradwell:

Though her background was in New England, descended on both sides from early Massachusetts settlers, Myra Bradwell is mainly associated with the Midwest, especially Chicago.

Myra Bradwell was born in Vermont and lived with her family in New York's Genessee River Valley before the family moved to Schaumburg, Illinois, about 1843.

She attended finishing school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and then attended Elgin Female Seminary. There were no colleges in that part of the country that would admit women. After graduation, she taught for a year.

Marriage:

Despite her family's opposition, Myra Bradwell married James Bolesworth Bradwell in 1852. He was descended from English immigrants, and was a law student supporting himself through manual work. They moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and ran a private school together as he continued to study law. Their first child, Myra, was born in 1854.

James was admitted to the Tennessee bar, and then the family moved to Chicago where James was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1855. He opened a law firm in partnership with Frank Colby, Myra's brother.

Myra Bradwell began to read law with her husband; no law school of the time would have admitted women. She conceived of her marriage as a partnership, and used her growing legal knowledge to help her husband, taking care of the couple's four children and household while also helping at James' law office. In 1861, James was elected as a Cook County judge.

Civil War and Aftermath

When the Civil War began, Myra Bradwell became active in support efforts. She joined the Sanitary Commission and, with Mary Livermore, was involved in organizing a successful fund-raising fair in Chicago, to provide supplies and other support for the Commission's work. Mary Livermore and others she met in this work were active in the woman suffrage movement.

At the end of the war, Myra Bradwell continued her support work by becoming active in, and president of, the Soldiers' Aid Society, raising funds to support the families of soldiers.

After the war, the suffrage movement split over strategic priorities of rights for African American men and women's rights, especially related to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Myra Bradwell joined the faction including Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Frederick Douglass that supported the Fourteenth Amendment as essential to guaranteeing black equality and full citizenship, even though it was flawed in only applying voting rights to males. She joined with these allies in founding the American Woman Suffrage Association.

Legal Leadership

In 1868, Myra Bradwell founded a regional legal newspaper, Chicago Legal News, and became both editor and business manager. The paper became a leading legal voice in the western United States. In editorials, Blackwell supported many of the progressive reforms of her time, from women's rights to the establishment of law schools. The newspaper and the associated printing business flourished under Myra Blackwell's leadership.

Bradwell was involved in extending married women's property rights. In 1869, she used her legal knowledge and skills to draft a law to protect the earnings of married women, and she also helped to protect the interest of widows in their husbands' estates.

Applying to the Bar

In 1869, Bradwell took and passed with high honors the Illinois bar exam. Expecting to be admitted quietly to the bar, because Arabella Mansfield had been granted a license in Iowa (though Mansfield never actually practiced law), Bradwell was turned down. First the Illinois Supreme Court found that she was "disabled" as a married woman, since a married woman did not have separate legal existence from her husband and could not even sign legal contracts. Then, on a rehearing, the Supreme Court found that simply being a woman disqualified Bradwell.

Myra v. Bradwell Supreme Court Decision:

Myra Bradwell appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, on the grounds of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection provision. But in 1872, the court in Bradwell v. Illinois upheld the Illinois Supreme Court's decision to deny her admission to the bar, ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment did not require states to open the legal profession to women.

The case didn't distract Bradwell from further work. She was instrumental in the consideration of extending the vote to women in the 1870 state constitution in Illinois.

In 1871, the paper's offices and printing plant were destroyed in the Chicago Fire. Myra Bradwell was able to get the paper published in time by using facilities in Milwaukee. The Illinois legislature granted the printing company the contract to republish official records lost in the fire.

Before Bradwell v. Illinois was decided, Myra Bradwell and another woman whose application had also been denied by the Illinois Supreme Court joined forces in drafting a stature to allow both men and women admission into any profession or occupation. Before the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, Illinois had opened up the legal profession to women. But Myra Blackwell did not submit a new application.

Later Work

In 1875, Myra Blackwell took up the cause of Mary Todd Lincoln, involuntarily committed to an insane asylum by her son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Myra's work helped win Mrs. Lincoln's release.

In 1876, in recognition of her role as a civic leader, Myra Bradwell was one of Illinois' representatives to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

In 1882, Bradwell's daughter graduated from law school and became a lawyer.

An honorary member of the Illinois State bar Association, Myra Bradwell served as its vice president for four terms.

In 1885, when the Illinois Woman's Press Association was founded, the first women writers elected Myra Bradwell its president. She did not accept that office, but she did join the group, and is counted among the founders. (Frances Willard and Sarah Hackett Stevenson were also among those who joined in the first year.)

Closing Acts

In 1888, Chicago was selected as the site for the World's Columbian Exposition, with Myra Bradwell being one of the key lobbyists winning that selection.

In 1890, Myra Bradwell was finally admitted to the Illinois bar, on the basis of her original application. In 1892, the United States Supreme Court granted her a license to practice before that court.

In 1893, Myra Bradwell was already suffering from cancer, but was one of the lady managers for the World's Columbian Exposition, and chaird the committee on law reform at one of the congresses held in conjunction with the exposition. She attended in a wheelchair. She died in Chicago in February, 1894.

The daughter of Myra and James Bradwell, Bessie Helmer, continued to publish the Chicago Legal News until 1925.

Books About Myra Bradwell:

Jane M. Friedman. America's First Woman Lawyer: the Biography of Myra Bradwell. 1993.

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Abigail Willey Colby
  • Father: Eben Colby
  • Siblings: four; Myra was the youngest

Education:

  • finishing school in Kenosha, Wisconsin
  • Elgin Female Seminary

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: James Bolesworth Bradwell (married May 18, 1852; lawyer, judge, legislator)
  • children:
    • Myra (1854, died age 7)
    • Thomas (1856)
    • Bessie (1858)
    • James (1862, died age 2)

Organizations: American Woman Suffrage Association, Illinois Bar Association, Illinois Press Association, 1876 Centenniel Exposition, 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

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