Myra Bradwell & The Chicago Legal News
Myra Bradwell is one of the most noteworthy female lawyers in American history. She began publishing a weekly newspaper in 1868 called the Chicago Legal News—which covered news happenings in courts throughout the country. In the nineteenth century, married women were still subject to legal disabilities; however, Bradwell (who was married to a Chicago attorney) managed to get a special charter from the Illinois legislature to run the Chicago Legal News as her own business.
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Bradwell used the News to write editorials, evaluate legal opinions and news laws, and to assess proposed legislation. She also used the paper as a platform to support progressive movements, like prison reform, the establishment of law schools, and women’s rights. Although she couldn’t legally practice law, Bradwell drafted bills to improve married women’s rights to child custody and property. She drafted and lobbied for the Illinois Married Woman’s Property Act of 1869, permitting women to own property and control their own earnings.
Myra Bradwell’s application to the bar was rejected by the Illinois Supreme Court because she was not a “truly free agent”—due to being married. Bear in mind that this rejection came although Bradwell passed the entrance tests in 1869 and there was no law explicitly prohibiting the state supreme court to license women as attorneys. She had to hire an attorney to argue her case appealing this decision. Her attorney argued that the right to pursue any honorable profession was among the “privileges and immunities” guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Unfortunately, the Court ruled against her appeal. Justice Joseph P. Bradley offered the justification that the Court’s decision was based on the inherent differences between men and women. This judgment was subsequently used as a defense to exclude women from professional careers.
In 1872, a bill was passed that granted freedom of occupational choice to all citizens of Illinois: male and female. However, Bradwell didn’t believe she should beg for admission to the bar, so she never again formally applied for a license to practice law. She wrote in the Chicago Legal News that “having once complied with the rules and regulations of the court . . . [I] declined to . . . again ask for admission.”
Twenty years after her application, the Illinois Supreme Court admitted Myra Bradwell to the bar. This was in 1890. It wasn’t until 1894 when she was allowed to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, but she never argued a case there. Myra Bradwell died two years later.
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