Myra Bradwell v. Illinois (1873)

by Angela N. Johnson

It would be a grave injustice to research women in the legal profession without also researching the struggle of women to enter the profession in the first place.  That search begins with Myra Bradwell.  Ms. Bradwell successfully passed the Illinois bar examination, was the publisher of a leading legal newspaper, wife of a prominent Cook County judge, yet was denied a license to practice law.

In my search, I found the full text of the case which contains the procedural history. Page 83, U.S. 133 states: “In view of these facts, we are certainly warranted in saying that when the legislature gave to this Court the power of granting licenses to practice law, it was with not the slightest expectation that this privilege would be extended to women” (Bradwell v.Illinois (1873)) at p. 83.  However, more insight on the specific reasons why a married woman should be excluded from the practice of law come across in Justice Bradley’s concurring opinion, in which he states, “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 constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood” (Bradwell v.Illinois (1873)).  The short, one-page opinion can be read here.  While Justice Bradley cites exigent reasons why a married woman should not be permitted to hold a license to practice law, he does not address the issue of an unmarried woman. 

In short, this case asked the question, is the right to obtain a license to practice law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to all citizens of the United States?  The answer was no.  Justice Miller argued the right to practice law did not depend on citizenship.  Justice Bradley stated it was “natural and proper for women to be excluded from the legal profession.  He cited the importance maintaining the “respective spheres of man and woman,” with women performing the duties of motherhood and wife in accordance with the “law of the Creator.”

I look forward to reporting in greater detail on Myra Bradwell as I further my research.

Source Citation: Bradwell v.Illinois (1873). No. 83 U.S. 130. United States Supreme Court.


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