Ricker, Marilla (1840–1920)

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Ricker, Marilla (1840–1920)

American lawyer and suffragist. Name variations: Marilla Young Ricker. Born Marilla Marks Young in New Durham, New Hampshire, on March 18, 1840; died on November 12, 1920 in Dover, New Hampshire; daughter of Jonathan Young and Hannah (Stevens) Young; attended Colby Academy in New London, New Hampshire; married John Ricker (a farmer), on May 19, 1863 (died 1868); no children.

Was the first woman to have a vote officially acknowledged, although not counted (1871); was the first woman appointed U.S. commissioner in the District of Columbia (1891); dubbed the "Prisoner's Friend" by area newspapers because of her legal work on behalf of prisoners (1890s).

At a time when women were expected to remain at home to care for their families, Marilla Ricker sought the right to vote for women, and she spent her life pursuing legal rights and political equality for the underprivileged. Her parents, Jonathan and Hannah Young , raised their four children to be freethinkers, without the gender prejudices of the day. Born in New Durham, New Hampshire, on March 18, 1840, Marilla was the oldest daughter and began her education early. While her mother taught her to read, her father encouraged her education in politics and philosophy. Bright and energetic, she became a teacher at the age of 16 and had completed a year's worth of training at the Colby Academy in New London, New Hampshire, when the Civil War broke out. Ricker sought to join the Union forces as a nurse, but her lack of nursing experience forced a return to teaching.

On May 19, 1863, Marilla married John Ricker, a wealthy farmer 33 years her senior. John, a progressive thinker like her father, believed in equality, a characteristic that no doubt appealed to her. He died, however, five years later. In 1872, as a well-off widow, Ricker began a four-year sojourn abroad, where she became fluent in various languages. She spent much of this time absorbing the ideas of social reformers such as Charles Bradlaugh, editor of the National Reformer, and Annie Besant , advocates of self-determination, political equality and birth control.

By the time she returned to America, Ricker had decided to pursue a legal career, determined to focus her attention and energy on helping the oppressed. Although she settled in Washington, D.C., Ricker spent her summers in New Hampshire, and protested conditions in the New Hampshire state prison to the governor of that state in 1879. She also set in motion legislation to grant prisoners the right to send sealed letters to the governor without the interference of prison wardens. Ricker was likewise successful in her 1890 petition to the State Supreme Court to grant women the right to practice law in New Hampshire, although there is no evidence that she herself took advantage of this opportunity.

On May 12, 1882, Ricker passed the District of Columbia bar. Her initial appearance in court was as an assistant counsel in the Star Route mail fraud case of 1882. Her law practice occupied her energies that first year and kept her schedule full, as she was appointed notary public in the District of Columbia by President Chester A. Arthur. In this role, she took further steps toward helping the underprivileged by allowing prisoners to make depositions before her when they did not have the money to pay other city notaries. Within two years, Ricker was appointed U.S. commissioner by the District's Supreme Court judges, becoming the first woman in the District of Columbia to secure such a position.

Acting in this quasi-judicial role furthered her experience and on May 11, 1891, Ricker was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. She never lost sight of her goal of assisting the oppressed, and she played a pivotal role in ending the District of Columbia's "poor convict's law," which allowed indigent criminals to be held indefinitely if they were unable to pay their fines. For this and other efforts to help prisoners and prostitutes, Ricker earned the nickname "Prisoner's Friend" in the area newspapers. While she concentrated on criminal law during the first years of her practice, she went on to focus on banking and financial legislation and then, from the turn of the 20th century, on reforming labor laws.

Ricker is also known for being the first woman in a non-western state (some of which enfranchised women in the late 19th century) to have a vote officially acknowledged, although it was not counted. In 1870, she demanded the right to vote, claiming that, because she was a taxpayer, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed her the right. She voted the following year, and while that ballot was not counted, she continued to protest and demand her rightful place in the voting booth every year thereafter when she paid her taxes.

Ricker was a lifetime member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and of the National Legislative League, and continued to assist the cause of suffrage as a delegate to various conventions representing the New Hampshire Woman Suffrage Association. Although a staunch Republican, she supported her friend Belva Lockwood 's candidacy for president of the United States by heading the New Hampshire ticket of electors for the Equal Rights party during Lockwood's run in 1884. For the most part, however, Ricker maintained her ties with the Republican Party, campaigning in 1888 and 1892 for Republican candidates.

Never moving far from her political goals, Ricker lobbied President William McKinley for an appointment as minister to Colombia in the hopes of opening diplomatic opportunities for women. Although she had extensive support in this effort, she was denied the post. Undeterred, she announced her candidacy for governor of New Hampshire in 1910. Her filing fee for this position was refused on the grounds that since she could not vote, she could not run.

Ricker spent the last years of her life publishing essays, including the collections I Don't Know, Do You? (1916) and I Am Not Afraid, Are You? (1917), which attacked the clergy and labeled religious reverence "mental suicide." Among her most respected works is Four Gospels (1911), which compared the lives and works of Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll with those of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Ricker, who was informal and had a lively sense of humor, enjoyed expounding upon her favorite subjects, producing a number of pamphlets and articles, and contributing to the Dover Tribune and Truthseeker magazine. She lived her final two years in Dover, New Hampshire, in the home of John W. Hogan, editor and publisher of the Dover Tribune. Ricker died of a stroke at age 80; her ashes were spread around a favorite tree on the family farm where she had been born.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland