Legal Pioneers

by Angela N. Johnson

Meg Gorecki’s article, “Legal Pioneers: Four of Illinois First Women Lawyers” explores the work of Myra Bradwell, Alta Hulett, Ada Kepley, and Catherine McCulloch in opening the door to the legal profession to women and serving as role models for today’s lawyers.  Though these ladies happen to be legal pioneers of Illinois, its important to note that these four women are also pioneers on a national scale, too.  Given these women’s efforts in Illinois, it should come as no surprise that a 1901 issue of the Chicago Legal News declared “Illinois has more women lawyers than any state in the world and Chicago has more than any other city in the world” (Gorecki 1990).

 In comparing women’s entry to the legal profession with women’s work as doctors, Gorecki notes, “In 1880 there were only two hundred women lawyers in the entire United States, which was less than the number of women doctors practicing in Boston alone”  (Gorecki 1990). Though this article groups the four women together, they each had individual successes.  “Myra Bradwell was the first woman to apply for a license to practice law. Alta Hulett was the first woman to become a lawyer in Illinois, Ada Kepley was the first woman in the world to receive a law degree, and Catherine McCulloch was the first woman in Illinois to become a justice of the peace”  (Gorecki 1990). 

Myra Bradwell:

What is interesting about Myra Bradwell is that she is one of the greatest contributors to the advancement of law – though she never practiced law. In fact, it wasn’t until she began assisting her husband in his legal career that she desired to become a licensed attorney.  She passed the bar exam in 1868 but was rejected by the Illinois Supreme Court for admission to the bar – “by reason of the disability imposed by your married condition” (Gorecki 1990).  Bradwell tried again, including comparisons and statistics to women’s inclusion in the medical profession but was again denied – this time not because she was a married women but because she was simply a woman. The court’s reasoning was that the common law barred all women from becoming attorneys. She filed a writ of error to the United States Supreme Court and while the case was pending became the founder and editor of the Chicago Legal News – the first weekly legal publication in the Midwest.  The paper also provided an outlet for her to publicize and expose pitfalls in the practice of law, sometimes even lashing out at inept lawyers. 

In 1869, she “drafted the law giving married women their own earnings; she became the first and only woman in the world to possess her own earnings by special act of the Illinois Legislature” (Gorecki 1990). Later that year she was an organizer and speaker at the Chicago Suffrage Convention where she also spoke on women’s right to own property, to sit on juries, and to enter law school. Bradwell even devoted a column in her paper called “Law Relating to Women” which attempted to advance the political and legal status of women.  Sadly in October of 1871, Myra and her husband James lost their home, their law library, and the Chicago Legal News in the Chicago fire.  Their library was completley destroyed (it had contained over two thousand volumes). With the help of her paper’s subscribers who mailed law books and journals, the Bradwells rebuilt their library and Myra’s paper was back on its feet in just a few weeks.

In 1973, the Surpeme Court issued its opinion in Bradewll v. Illinois, which upheld the lower court’s decision.  “The court held that admission to the bar was not a privilege guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.  The court emphasized that women were limited to their functions of womanhood, based on their weakness and inability to be rational, maintained by ‘the laws of the creator’” (Gorecki 1990). Myra continued her efforts with legal reform, her newspaper, and women’s rights – even working for the formation of what would eventually be the Chicago Bar Association. She also continued to encourage other aspiring female attorneys until her passing on February 14, 1894 of cancer.

Alta Hulett:

In 1871, while Myra Bradwell’s application to the bar was pending, Alta Hulett (born June 4, 1854) sought admission to the bar. Alta later became Illinois’ first female lawyer. Alta begun working for a lawyer who was a family friend at just 16. She studied law under this attorney and later moved to Chicago to work for the firm of Sleeper and Whiton. She continued to study law and in 1871 (Myra Bradwell’s case was still pending) she petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court for admission to the bar. She argued that women as human beings had the right to be attorneys and that women had the same ability and intellectual capacity as men did and therefore could practice law (Gorecki 1990). Her application was denied and Myra Bradwell joined forces with her. Hulett’s response was to draft proposed legislation that would prohibit denying access to any occupation because of sex. At just 18 years old, she began lobbying the Illinois Legislature and appeared before the judiciary committees of both the House and Snate. Eight months later, Hulett was able to celebrate – the bill was passed. Illinois was the first state to enact a law giving women access to the legal profession.  Moreover, this law was the first in the U.S. to prohibit sex discrimination in employment (Gorecki 1990).  Alta passed the bar exam in 1873 (receiving the highest score) and was admitted on her nineteenth birthday, making her the first female lawyer in Illinois and the youngest female attorney in the world. She enjoyed a successful legal career – never losing a case before a jury.  Her career was tragically cut short when she was diagnosed with pulmonary consumption in November of 1876 (Gorecki 1990). Hulett died on March 26, 1877 at the age of 23.

Ada Kepley:

Kepley enrolled at the Union College of Law, the predecessor to Northwestern University Law School; she was considered a token woman and was never expected to finish the program – but in June of 1870 she graduated and received a law degree (becoming the first woman in the world to do so). That same year, Judge Decius of Effingham County, in defiance of the opinion of the Illinois Supreme Court, entered an order allowing Kepley to practice in his court.  (Hulett’s legislation had not yet passed and Bradwell’s case had not yet been decided by the Supreme Court).  Judge Decius acknowledge Illinois’ refusal to license a woman but declared that this was another case and he believed Kepley’s motion “was proper and in accord with the spirit of the age” (Gorecki 1990).

Catherine Waugh McCulloch:

Although few women practiced law, those who entered the profession focused on family law, labor aw, food and drug regulation, and environmental law.  These areas were considered within the context of social norms.  Catherine Waugh, born June 4, 1862, graduated from the Union College of Law in 1886 and was admitted to the bar the same year. The years 1875-1887 were particulalry slow for women’s advancement in the legal profession; just 18 women were admitted to the Illinois bar. Catherine had difficulty finding employment and eventually took a job with a member of her graduating class, Frank McCulloch and on May 30, 1890, Catherine married Frank (but did not take his last name until much later).  Catherine served as president of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association and member of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. “McCulloch employed her role as a wife and mother to help win the office of justice of the peace. In 1907, she announced that she would be running for the office in Evanston.  While campaigning she was quoted in the Evanston Press as Follows: ‘As I am the mother of little children and must be near them I shall be in Evanston most of the time during the next two years, and thus be at hand to perform any judicial duties necessary’” (Gorecki 1990). She won the election and became the first woman justice of the peace in Illinois. She was re-elected in 1909 and served a second term while continuing her involvement with the Suffrage movement.  Her bill, the Illinois Suffrage Bill passed in 1913 and gave women the right to vote for president and vice president.  Following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Catherine focused her efforts on women’s rights to sit on juries and to serve as law clerks.

“Catherine McCulloch, like Bradwell, Hulett, and Kepley, was considered above all else a true woman.  Even while holding a list of accomplishments longer than most men, she was seen as the nurturing wife and mother” (Gorecki 1990). With the exception of Hulett, who was not married, Bradwell, Kepley, and McCulloch were able to enter the legal profession largely because they married lawyers.  This was typical of the first women lawyers. Those who were unmarried were assumed to be working as lawyers temporarily – never as a career. Moreover, “by having powerful and supportive husbands these pioneers were able to spend time away from the home working for social causes” (Gorecki 1990).

Source Citation: Gorecki, Meg. “Legal Pioneers: Four of Illinois First Women Lawyers.” Illinois Bar Journal, 1990: 510-515.

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