Bradwell, Myra (1831–1894)

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Bradwell, Myra (1831–1894)

American founder, publisher, and editor of Chicago Legal News who, denied the right to practice law because of her gender, reformed the legal profession, especially laws discriminating against women. Born Myra Colby on February 12, 1831, in Manchester, Vermont; died of cancer in Chicago, Illinois, on February 14, 1894; daughter of Eben (a farmer) and AbigailHurd (Willey) Colby (both descendants of early Boston patriots); attended secondary school, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Ladies Seminary, Elgin, Illinois; married James Bolesworth Bradwell, on May 18, 1852; children: Myra (1854–1861); Thomas (b. 1856); Bessie Bradwell Helmer (b. 1858); James (b. 1862).

Family moved from Vermont to New York to Illinois; following graduation, taught in schools near Elgin; following marriage, taught in public schools and in a private school run in partnership with husband in Memphis, Tennessee (1853–55); back in Chicago, worked during Civil War with Northwestern Sanitary Commission, with leading role in Sanitary Fairs of 1863, 1865, 1867; read law under husband's tutelage, passed examination, but denied admission to bar on grounds of gender (1869); founder, manager, and editor of Chicago Legal News (1868–94); proposed many reforms for women's rights, the legal profession, and Chicago which were eventually adopted; appointed representative for Illinois to Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia (1876); admitted to bar by Illinois Supreme Court on court's own motion (1890); named to Board of Lady Managers, Chicago Columbian Exposition.

On October 8, 1871, fire raged through the city of Chicago, killing some 250 people and consuming over 17,000 buildings in an area of 3.5 square miles. For Myra Bradwell, as for many others, it was a terrifying night. Her home, her husband's large law library, and the records for her business, the immensely popular and profitable Chicago Legal News, were destroyed. Worse, her 13-year-old daughter Bessie was missing. Frantic, Bradwell and her husband James retreated to Lake Michigan, "and there, amid smoke and falling cinders and a heat that was almost stifling," they remained. The next day, her daughter reappeared, together with the Legal News subscription book which she had snatched as she fled. With her daughter and her business records restored, Bradwell took the manuscript for the Saturday edition of the News by train to Milwaukee, where she had it printed and distributed three days later, on its regular date of publication. Although she appealed to lawyers around the country to contribute books to their destitute colleagues in Chicago, the canny entrepreneur also recommended to legal book publishers that they advertise in her paper because "in no place in the world will there be such a demand for law books as in Chicago during the next few months." Never shy about proposing new legislation, Myra Bradwell made recommendations to establish proof of titles to real estate, and a special session of the legislature passed the Burnt Records Act incorporating her suggestions. Thanks to her shrewdness in having earlier secured through special legislation the right of the Chicago Legal News to be used as evidence in court, back issues of the News owned by lawyers downstate were of enormous value to prove previously established facts. Myra Bradwell returned to Chicago to rebuild her life and her business, "cheery and indomitable, uttering brave prophecies of future good."

Myra Colby, born on February 12, 1831, was descended on both sides from early participants in the young nation's history. Her mother, Abigail Willey Colby , came from a family which had settled in Boston in 1640; two Willeys had fought at Bunker Hill. Her father Eben's maternal ancestry encompassed the well-known Bishop Philander Chase and Salmon P. Chase, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Myra was the last child in a family which included three other daughters and a son. Shortly after her birth, the family moved to Portage, New York, where they lived until she was 12. In 1843, they moved further west, to a farm in the township of Schaumberg in Cook County, near present-day Elgin, Illinois. Myra was sent to live with a married sister in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where she attended school. She finished her education at the Elgin Female Seminary, and began teaching, first at the Seminary, and then in local district schools.

Not far from the Colby farm was the Bradwell farm, belonging to English immigrants who had settled on the prairie in 1834 when their son James was 12. James Bradwell had worked his way through Knox College for three years and begun the study of law. The Colbys at first opposed the marriage of their daughter to a poor law student, but the young couple were wed on May 18, 1852.

The Bradwells moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where they established a successful "select" (private) school. Their daughter Myra was born in 1854. The couple moved back to Illinois, where their son Thomas was born in 1856, and their daughter Bessie in 1858. James Bradwell had continued to read law, and in 1855, having been admitted to the bar, he joined his brother-in-law to form the firm of Bradwell and Colby, which attracted a large practice. In 1861, he was elected a judge of Cook County, a position which had jurisdiction in all probate cases. That same year, their daughter Myra died. The following year, another son, James, was born, but died in 1864.

Myra Bradwell had been a childhood friend of the Lovejoys, and the mob murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in 1837 had inspired her opposition to slavery and injustice. During the Civil War, she tended sick and wounded soldiers and involved herself in the work of the Northwestern Sanitary Commission which raised money for soldiers' aid. Bradwell took part in the Soldiers Fair of 1863, as well as the great Sanitary Fair of 1865 in Bryan Hall. As secretary of the Committee on Arms, Trophies and Curiosities, she was recognized for mounting an "artistic and beautiful exhibition." The Voice of the Fair on June 9, 1865, also noted that "in the midst of a melange of questions, which would have frenzied an ordinary person, her courtesy and kindness have maintained an equable glow." Bradwell worked on the Fair of 1867 for the benefit of families of soldiers, and later served as president of the Soldiers Aid Society and for many years on the board of the Soldiers Home. But in her editorial on the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881, she expressed the hope that his martyrdom might help heal a nation which had taken too long to forget the Civil War.

While she was honing her executive abilities in fund-raising, Myra Bradwell was also studying law with her husband, in order to help him in his practice. Although law schools were beginning to offer professional training, it was common throughout the 19th century to "read" law in the office of a man already in practice. In 1869, she passed the qualifying examination with credit, and applied for admission to the Illinois bar. At first, she was refused admission by the Supreme Court of Illinois because of her married status: the ancient principle of "coverture" held that under the law husband and wife were one person, and a woman lawyer would therefore not be entitled to keep her client's confidences to herself. When she argued against the married state being considered any longer a disability, the Court refused admission solely on the grounds that she was a woman. Among the reasons offered were that if the legal profession were open to women, then "every office in this state may be filled by women. … [W]omen [would] be made governors and sheriffs." The court also supposed that the "hot strifes of the bar" would "tend to destroy the deference and delicacy with which it is a matter of pride of our ruder sex to treat [women]."

Myra Bradwell took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was argued in 1871 by Senator Matthew Carpenter of Wisconsin, a constitutional lawyer who supported the rights of women. Finally in 1873, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court, in effect leaving professional requirements to individual states. (Her cousin, Chief Justice Chase, dissented). By then, Illinois had passed a law giving women equal opportunity with men in selecting an occupation, but Myra Bradwell did not reapply. In 1890, the Illinois Supreme Court granted her a license to practice law on its own motion, retroactive to the date of her original application in 1869.

One thing we do 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 had not reapplied because she was already busy with a new career. In September of 1868, she had released a prospectus for a new publication, the Chicago Legal News, announcing that a four-page journal devoted to legal information and decisions important to practicing lawyers and entrepreneurs would be issued every Saturday. She also promised to comment freely but fairly on the conduct of judges, members of the bar, officers of courts, and the activities of members of Congress and the state legislature. There was only one significant departure from her plan: so much advertising was bought for the first edition on October 3, 1869, that eight pages were printed instead of four; thereafter, there were never fewer than 12 pages during the next quarter century. A special charter was passed by the state legislature to allow Myra Bradwell to overcome her dependent status as a married woman and to act as publisher, manager, and editor-in-chief of the paper. She edited over 1,300 issues of the Chicago Legal News. For at least two decades, according to her biographer Jane M. Friedman , it was the most widely circulated legal newspaper in the country. The Bradwells also started the Chicago Legal News Corporation, which printed stationery, legal forms (many of which Myra designed), and briefs. It was the leading firm in Chicago to print cases on appeal.

In the very first issue she made good on her claim that the paper would "battle for improvement in everything directly or indirectly connected with the practice of law." The lead editorial concerned the Cook County courthouse where her husband presided as a judge. Myra Bradwell railed against the "accumulated filth of years" and the "piles of old furniture in the country courtroom." Her detailed plan for constructing a new courthouse was the first of many of her suggestions which were eventually adopted. Appropriately, the motto of the paper was Lex Vincit, "Law Conquers."

Other lawyers and journalists predicted the Legal News would fail, but it filled an important niche. The paper published the Illinois session laws well before any other edition. Until her final illness, Bradwell personally took a printed copy of the new laws to Springfield for comparison. Beginning in 1877, she published every other year an edition of Hurd's Revised Statutes of Illinois, including the laws of the previous session. As the first legal weekly west of the Alleghenies, the News supplied information to a growing community of lawyers who settled the conflicts of eager entrepreneurs who had rushed to the developing territory. It also covered legal news of the whole country. Attracting advertising, the paper grew rapidly and, several times before the fire, had been forced to move to larger quarters.

Myra Bradwell was able to use the burgeoning influence of her paper to push for many reforms in the law. Since women could not vote, the power of the written word was virtually the only way a woman could agitate for change. Often James, who served in the Illinois state legislature for a number of years, helped to pass the bills she drafted or proposed. Bradwell was vitally interested in abolishing laws which discriminated against women. In her third issue, she argued that a married woman should be able to keep her earnings free and clear of her husband's debts. Soon after, she learned the story of a working woman whose wages had been garnisheed by a tavern keeper who had sold her husband liquor. Outraged, Bradwell drafted a bill giving married women the right to their own earnings, and she lobbied in Springfield, together with her husband, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Livermore, Catherine Waite and Judge Charles Waite, until it passed.

In 1873, James introduced a bill which Bradwell probably had helped compose to make women eligible to hold school offices in the state. She printed in full the minutes of the Illinois House Judiciary Committee opposing the bill and pointed out the errors in their arguments. The bill was enacted, and, within three years, there were 12 women county superintendents of schools in Illinois. Later, she used their example to argue for the right of women to hold other offices. Also in 1873, she urged passage of a law providing for the equal guardianship of children (previously, the fathers had been preferred in child-custody cases). In 1868 and 1870, Myra Bradwell was prevented by her gender from becoming a notary public; in 1875, this legal disability was removed. As early as 1870, she called for women to be allowed to serve as jurors. Whenever women were elected or appointed to a public position, she would note it in an editorial. The last of her proposals for women's rights to become law in Illinois was that women should be paid the same amount as men for the same work.

Bradwell was also active in support of women's suffrage. During the planning for the first suffrage convention held in Chicago in February 1869, she obtained the endorsement of all the judges in Cook County, many members of the bar, and a number of leading ministers. Stanton praised her as "a woman of great force and executive ability." Myra and James lobbied to amend the state constitution to allow women to vote. For a number of years, Bradwell served on the executive committee of the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association formed at the convention.

In spite of her suffrage activity, Bradwell is largely absent from contemporary accounts of the suffrage movement. Friedman ascribes this to disagreements with Susan B. Anthony over how to win the vote. When Anthony and Stanton and their National Woman Suffrage Association opposed the 15th Amendment because it enfranchised blacks and not women, Lucy Stone called for moderates to attend a meeting in Cleveland to form a parallel women's rights organization. Myra and James Bradwell attended the Cleveland convention in November 1869 to form the American Woman Suffrage Association. While the National urged passage of a federal Constitutional Amendment, the American planned to work for woman suffrage in individual states. Myra served as corresponding secretary of the convention, and James was chosen temporary chair. Bradwell's moderate position would have appealed to her male readers, many in a position to influence a suffrage bill, as did her argument that "devoted mothers and wives" would be more effective lobbyists than "the class who term man 'a tyrant.'" Bradwell further alienated Anthony by working for partial suffrage laws, and by allowing Matthew Carpenter to argue her case before the Supreme Court with the explicit reservation that admitting Bradwell to the bar would not imply she had a constitutional right to vote.

Reform of institutions was another of Bradwell's concerns. In one of the first issues of the Legal News, she criticized the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill. She also attacked the Chicago Reform School. Most of the inmates were children who were orphans or abandoned, and they were being forced to work to the point of exhaustion. She exposed these facts in her paper, as well as a letter from the superintendent of schools, claiming she'd misstated the facts. She repeated them, in effect daring him to sue her for libel. Ultimately, her efforts led to the closing of the Chicago Reform School. Bradwell was a charter member of the Illinois Industrial School for Girls. She was appointed in the early 1870s by the governor of Illinois as a delegate to the Prison Reform Congress in St. Louis, where she lobbied hard to ensure that women be allowed to serve as officers, though afterwards she declined to accept a position herself.

She became involved with the issue of arbitrary confinement when her longtime friend Mary Todd Lincoln , the widow of President Abraham Lincoln, was incarcerated in 1875 by her sole surviving son, Robert, after a commitment hearing about which Bradwell had not been informed more than an hour in advance, and at which she was not allowed to testify. Bradwell visited her friend in the asylum and arranged for two other reporters to publish the facts of the case. The resulting publicity led to Mary Lincoln's release.

Bradwell advocated a number of other reforms: to abolish discrimination in taxation between blacks and whites; to install a modern indexing system for the recorder of deeds; in civil cases, to receive a majority verdict or dispense with a jury; to limit the ability of a court of last resort to reverse its decision; to allow the accused to testify in criminal cases; to secure better treatment of witnesses, then often treated worse than the criminal; to abolish whipping as punishment for a crime; to regulate railroads and other large corporations; to permit foreign corporations to loan and invest money in Illinois; to establish intermediate federal appellate courts; and to regulate the height of proposed buildings, one of the first zoning laws.

She also called for many reforms of the legal profession, including specialization of lawyers in large cities; the recommendation that judges should not run for other political offices without first resigning; compulsory retirement and pensions for judges; and the creation of the Chicago Bar Association (formed with her help in 1873), the Illinois Bar Association (she was elected an honorary member at its second annual meeting, although she was not then a member of the bar), and the American Bar Association.

Bradwell worked on behalf of her community as well as on behalf of her fellow citizens. She was appointed by the governor in 1876 as a member of the Illinois Centennial Association, to represent the state in the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and served as treasurer of the Women's Branch of the Association. By 1888, she was lobbying for a World's Fair to be held in Chicago in 1892, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the Americas. The governor appointed her to the committee to promote the fair, and she accompanied the commissioner to Washington to petition Congress for appropriations. Potter Palmer, the president of the fair, was convinced that her "charm and diplomacy secured for Chicago the World's Columbian Exposition." She served on the fair's Board of Lady Managers, and as chair of the committee on law reform of its auxiliary congress.

Waite, Catherine (1829–1913)

American writer, suffragist, and lawyer. Born Catherine Van Valkenburg on January 30, 1829, in Dumfries, Ontario, Canada; died of a heart ailment in Park Ridge, Illinois, on November 9, 1913; daughter of Joseph and Margaret (Page) Van Valkenburg; attended Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois; graduated from Oberlin College, 1853; attended Union College of Law (later Northwestern University Law School), 1885; admitted to the bar, June 1886; married Charles B. Waite (a Chicago lawyer), in 1854; children: Lucy, Jessie, Margaret, Joseph, and Charles.

For four years, Catherine Waite lived with her husband Charles B. Waite in Utah Territory, following his appointment to the Utah Territory Supreme Court by Abraham Lincoln. Upon her return to Chicago, Waite wrote of her experiences in The Mormon Prophet and His Harem (1867), protesting the practice of polygamy. Enrolling in law school in 1885, she passed the bar and, for three years, published the Chicago Law Times; she also served as president of the International Woman's Bar Association.

suggested reading:

Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge; MA: Belknap, 1971.

Bradwell was well-traveled for a woman of her day. In 1872, she was elected a vice president of the Illinois Press Association, and often went on its annual excursions throughout the United States. She visited Europe three times, in 1869, in 1881, and finally in 1891, to consult Sir Spencer Wells of London, who confirmed a diagnosis of cancer made in January. In spite of her illness, she was determined to see the fair she had worked so hard to promote. Against the advice of her doctor and friends, she insisted on visiting a hotel near the grounds, from which she went forth in a wheelchair to visit the fair for a couple of hours every day for a week in September 1893. She died on February 14, 1894, three days before her 63rd birthday.

Helmer, Bessie Bradwell (1858–1927)

American lawyer and editor. Born in Chicago, Illinois, on October 20, 1858; died in Battle Creek, Michigan, on January 10, 1927; daughter ofMyra (Colby) Bradwell (a legal reformer and entrepreneur) and James Bolesworth Bradwell; graduated first in class, Chicago High School, 1876; graduated first in class Union College of Law (later Northwestern University Law School), 1882; married Frank A. Helmer (a lawyer), in 1885.

Following her mother's death in 1894, Bessie Bradwell Helmer became assistant editor of the Chicago Legal News. From 1907 until her death in 1927, Helmer was editor-in-chief and president of the company.

Myra Bradwell liked to use her life as proof that giving women their rights would not render them unfit wives and mothers. She was extremely close to her grown children, who shared a house with their parents, even after they were married and had children of their own. Both her son and her daughter became lawyers; Bessie Bradwell graduated in 1882 as head of her class from Union College of Law (later Northwestern Law School). After their mother's death, with their father's help, they continued her work: Bessie Bradwell Helmer with the newspaper until 1925 and Thomas Bradwell with the printing company. Helmer also continued her mother's work for women's rights as the chair of the American Association of University Women's committee for graduate fellowships.


Bird, Caroline. Enterprising Women. NY: Norton, 1976.

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

Gale, George W. American Bar Association Journal. Vol. 39. December 1953, p. 1080.

Kogan, Herman. "Myra Bradwell, Crusader at Law," in Chicago History. Vol. 3, no. 3. Winter 1974–75, pp. 132–140.

Kristie Miller , author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics, 1880–1944 (University of New Mexico Press, 1992)

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Bradwell, Myra (1831–1894)

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