Bradwell, Myra Colby

views updated


Myra Bradwell was a legal editor and an early leader in the struggle for women's rights, especially in the legal profession.

Bradwell was born February 12, 1831, in Manchester, Vermont. After an early childhood in Portage, New York, she moved with her family to Illinois and attended the ladies seminary in Elgin, where she subsequently became a teacher. In 1852 she married James B. Bradwell, an Englishman who had immigrated to the United States and studied law in Memphis, Tennessee. The Bradwells established a private school in Memphis but moved to Chicago in 1854. There James Bradwell opened a law office and eventually became a judge of the Cook County Court.

After the move to Chicago Bradwell began to study law with her husband with the intention of becoming his assistant; she later decided to establish a practice of her own. In 1868 she founded the Chicago Legal News, a weekly legal newspaper. With Bradwell serving as both editor and business manager, the News quickly became a success. It was chartered by the Illinois legislature, which also passed legislation establishing the paper as a valid place for the publication of legal notices and allowing state laws and opinions published in the paper to be offered as evidence in court. Under her editorial leadership, the News called for the regulation of corporations, the enactment of zoning ordinances, and

the establishment of professional standards for the legal profession. The News building was destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871 but Bradwell quickly arranged to have the paper printed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and published the next issue on schedule.

In 1869, after passing the state bar examination, Bradwell applied to the Illinois Supreme Court for admission to the bar. The court rejected her application on the ground that as a married woman she "would be bound neither by her express contracts nor by those implied contracts which it is the policy of the law to create between attorney and client." She reapplied, but the court rejected her again, this time because she was a woman, regardless of her marital status. The court said that if it were to admit women to the bar, it would be exercising its authority in a manner "never contemplated" by the state legislature when it granted that authority (In re Bradwell, 55 Ill. 535 [1870]). She appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the Illinois decision, saying that it could not interfere with each state's right to regulate the granting of licenses within its borders (Bradwell v. People, 16 Wall [83 U.S.] 130, 21 L. Ed. 442 [1872]).

In 1882, however, the Illinois legislature passed a law guaranteeing all persons, regardless of sex, the right to select a profession as they wished. Although Bradwell never reapplied for admission to the bar, the Illinois Supreme Court informed her that her original application had been accepted. As a result, she became the first woman member of the Illinois State Bar Association; she was also the first woman member of the Illinois Press Association. On March 28, 1892, she was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition to her efforts to win admission to the bar, Bradwell played a role in the broader women's rights movement. She was active in the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association and helped form the American Woman Suffrage Association. She was also influential in the passage of laws by the Illinois legislature that gave married women the right to keep wages they earned and protected the rights of widows.

During the latter years of her life, Bradwell was one of a number of Chicago citizens who worked to secure the World's Fair for their city. When the fair was held in 1893 she chaired the committee on law reform of its auxiliary congress.

"One thing we claim—that woman has the right to think and act as an individual—believing if the great father had intended it to be otherwise, he would have placed eve in a cage and given adam the key."
Myra Bradwell

Bradwell died February 14, 1894, in Chicago, Illinois.

further readings

Cushman, Claire, ed. 1993. The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1993. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Friedman, Jane M. 1993. America's First Woman Lawyer: The Biography of Myra Bradwell. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

Paper, Lewis J. 1983. Brandeis: An Intimate Biography. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Urofsky, Melvin I. 1981. Louis D. Brandeis and the Progressive Tradition. Boston: Little, Brown.


"Bradwell v. Illinois" (Appendix, Primary Document).

About this article

Bradwell, Myra Colby

Updated About content Print Article