Hart, Pearl

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HART, Pearl

HART, Pearl (b. 7 April 1890; d. 22 March 1975), attorney, activist, civic leader.

Pearl Hart was born in Traverse City, Michigan, as Pearl Minnie Harchovsky, the fifth daughter in a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father moved the family to Chicago before Hart began school. Nurtured in a large, loving family, she had a personality that fused the compassionate outlook of her mother, a social worker, with the wisdom and intellect of her father, an orthodox rabbi.

Hart graduated in 1914 from the John Marshall Law School in Chicago and became one of the first female attorneys in that city to practice criminal law. Her legal career focused on the needs of women, children, and immigrants. Only in the twilight of her life did Hart turn her attention to nurturing the growth of the LGBT community in Chicago.

Underlying all of Hart's legal and social activism was a commitment to the civil liberties of the individual citizen. At various points in her career, she confronted police abuses of power. In the 1930s, for example, she tackled the problem of women arrested for prostitution on the flimsiest of pretenses. In the 1950s Hart turned her legal skills to fighting the attempts of the federal government to deport naturalized immigrants accused of subversive activities. She appealed the case of U.S. v. Witkovich to the U.S. Supreme Court, and, in 1957, the Court decided in her favor. In the 1960s she was one of the few attorneys in Chicago who defended gay men. Throughout her career, she was devoted to what is the most vulnerable group in any society—children. She was recognized as a national expert on the juvenile justice system and its reform.

Hart's activist record is reflected in the numerous organizations she helped establish and to which she belonged. She was a founding member of the National Lawyers Guild, the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights, and Mattachine Midwest. She served in various leadership positions in these and many other groups.

As a natural outgrowth of her commitment to social change, Hart was also drawn to politics. Registered as an Independent or Progressive Party candidate, she ran for judgeships in 1928, 1932, 1947, and 1948, and for a seat as a Chicago alderman in 1947 and 1951. She lost all six elections. Her failures to gain political office were balanced by her success as a teacher. Hart taught criminal law at her alma mater, John Marshall, from 1946 until 1971.

Hart was widely respected for her role as a mentor to women law students and lawyers. She was a popular public speaker, addressing groups that ran the gamut from national conventions to neighborhood organizations. She devoted countless pro bono hours of legal work to the causes she believed in and to indigent clients. Despite the seriousness of the goals to which she dedicated her life, Hart was fond of telling jokes and of collecting new ones. Her physical stature was striking. She was close to six feet tall and weighed around 200 pounds.

Hart remained a closeted lesbian throughout her life. In the 1920s Hart began a relationship with J. Blossom Churan, a stage actress. In the 1940s Churan had an affair with a physician, Bertha Isaacs. Hart proposed that all three live together, which they did until Churan's death in 1973. In 1963 Hart began a relationship with poet and author Valerie Taylor, which lasted until Hart's death in 1975.

Hart first became publicly identified with the LGBT community in Chicago when she addressed attendees at the initial organizing meeting of Mattachine Midwest on 27 July 1965. Hart cofounded the group along with two men, Bob Basker and Ira Jones.

Hart's efforts on behalf of the Chicago LGBT community were twofold. First, she defended gay men nabbed in bar raids, those accused of soliciting sex in public places, and those entrapped to do so. Second, she served as Mattachine Midwest's legal counsel from its inception until her death. Hart defended her clients without engaging in the bribery and other forms of corruption so common in the disposition of such cases. Her immaculate reputation earned her the affectionate title "Guardian Angel of Chicago's Gay Community."

Lesbians active in the Daughters of Bilitis also knew of Hart's reputation. Del Martin, editor of the Ladder, solicited her opinion on the repeal of Illinois's sodomy laws for an article in the March 1962 issue of the magazine.

Hart died on 22 March 1975 of pancreatic cancer complicated by heart disease. She practiced law for sixty-one years with compassion, integrity, and an unwavering commitment to social justice, in the finest tradition of the U.S. Left. She was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1992 and awarded a Chicago Tribute Marker of Distinction in 2002.


Bradford, Jim. "Pearl Hart Is Remembered on the Anniversary of Her Passing." Chicago Gay Life, 15 March 1976, pp. 1, 6.

Gatland, Laura. "Guardian of Justice." John Marshall Comment (winter 1998): 20–24.

Ginger, Ann Fagan. The National Lawyers Guild: From Roosevelt through Reagan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

——. Carol Weiss King: Human Rights Lawyer, 1895–1952. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1993.

Hart, Pearl. Papers. Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Illinois.

Martin, Del. "New Illinois Penal Code——What Does It Mean?" Ladder, March 1962, pp. 14–15.

Sendziak, Karen C. "Pearl M. Hart." In Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. Edited by Vern L. Bullough. New York: Haworth, 2002.

Karen C. Sendziak