When Myra Bradwell, already the editor of a respected law journal in Chicago, applied for membership in the Illinois bar in 1869, she was rejected. 

Following the practice of the day, Bradwell had been examined on her knowledge of the law by a judge, who found her qualified for admission to the bar. Hard to believe today, but Bradwell was denied membership solely because she was a woman. 

The Illinois Supreme Court invoked the English common law upon which state law was founded, and according to which, as a married woman, Bradwell would not be able to enter into contracts on her own.

Even if she had not been married, however, the application would have been denied.  “That God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action, and that it belonged to men to make, apply, and execute the laws, was regarded as an almost axiomatic truth,” the Court said.

“[Myra Bradwell] probably contributed more to the women’s rights movement than any other woman in the 19th Century,” her biographer Jane M. Friedman told the Chicago Tribune.

Bradwell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the Illinois Court. Bradwell would prove that axiomatic truth wrong. She never petitioned for membership again, but the wrong was righted and the Illinois bar conferred membership on her decades later in 1890. 

Despite this setback, Bradwell had an outstanding career editing the reform-minded Chicago Legal News, which printed news about court opinions and ordinances and also pushed for women’s suffrage, among a number of other causes. She helped write an 1869 bill that ensured married women the right to hold onto their own earnings. She and her husband helped found the American Woman Suffrage Association.

She was not embittered by her failure to become a member of the bar and believed that women’s suffrage would not be gained by denigrating men. “You ask us, how shall this great privilege be obtained for women? We will tell you,” she wrote. “Not by the class who term man ‘a tyrant’—but by the sensible and devoted mothers, wives and daughters of the state unifying together, we mean those who have the respect and love of their fathers, husbands and brothers, and asking them that they give to women the right to vote.”

“[Myra Bradwell] probably contributed more to the women’s rights movement than any other woman in the 19th Century,” her biographer Jane M. Friedman told the Chicago Tribune. “People like Susan B. Anthony were one-issue people. The issue was women’s suffrage. But Myra was a multi-issue person. She entirely changed the course of women’s legal rights.”

Friedman’s well-reviewed book is entitled America’s First Woman Lawyer, which is a bit of a stretch.  Arabella Mansfield, for example, was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1869, the same year Bradwell’s application was rejected. But if Bradwell wasn’t the first, she was part of an emerging group of early women lawyers. Among them were prominent Chicago suffragists Mary Ahrens and Catherine Waugh McCulloch. 

Born in Vermont in 1831, Myra Colby was the daughter of abolitionist parents. The family moved to Illinois when Myra was 12. Very little is known of her early years. She married James Bradwell in 1852, and the couple lived in Memphis, Tenn., where he was headmaster and she was a teacher at a private school. The Bradwells moved to Chicago in 1855, where James became a lawyer and ultimately a judge. He served in the Illinois General Assembly. 

Myra and James Bradwell were the prime actors in getting Mary Todd Lincoln, the President’s widow, released from an insane asylum.

Myra became fascinated with the law. She taught herself law while serving in an apprenticeship in her husband’s office.  Her denial of bar membership came even though a federal judge from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judged her qualified. She continued to edit the Chicago Legal News (a special charter, granted by the legislature, was required for a woman to start a business). She promoted women’s suffrage and other reforms in the paper.

Myra was one of the three founders of the Chicago Sorosis Club (Mary Livermore and Kate Doggett were the others), one of the country’s early women’s clubs. It met for discussions and to hear speakers. Like many suffrage organizations, the club split over whether to support the Fifteenth Amendment, which enfranchised newly freed slaves but did not mention women. Myra went with the Lucy Stone faction, which, while disappointed that women were not given the vote, supported the Fifteenth Amendment.

Bradwell served as an officer in the Illinois Suffrage Association, which in 1870 petitioned the state convention drafting a new constitution to include woman suffrage. The move failed, not at all helped by nearly 400 women from Peoria who strenuously objected to having the ballot “thrust upon them.” Myra and James Bradwell, joined by lawyer Alta Hulett fought for laws expanding women’s rights. Hulett had also originally been rejected for bar membership because of her sex, but later was accepted and practiced law. Myra was often involved in the drafting of legislation.  “A lot of the country’s initial women’s legal rights legislation came from Myra Bradwell’s pen,” biographer Friedman told the Chicago Tribune. 

With the support of the Bradwells and Hulett, laws were passed that granted women the right to control their property after marriage and equal guardianship of children in the case of divorce. An 1872 law opened all professional fields—including the law—to women. Only the military was now off limits to Illinois women. Hulett was admitted to the bar the next year, becoming the first female member of the Illinois bar. Though Myra Bradwell never applied again to the bar, she was retroactively admitted in 1890. The U.S. Supreme Court gave her a license to practice law in 1892.

In telling the story of Myra Bradwell, one adventure cannot be omitted. James and Myra Bradwell were the prime actors in getting Mary Todd Lincoln, the President’s widow, released from an insane asylum. When Mary Todd Lincoln, who had been institutionalized against her will by her son, Robert Todd Lincoln, appealed to the Bradwells, old friends of the Lincolns, they accepted the challenge. Mrs. Lincoln wrote the Bradwells from Bellevue Place, an asylum in Batavia, Illinois.  

Myra was often involved in the drafting of legislation.

The Bradwells, who judged Mrs. Lincoln eccentric but not insane, waged a public campaign, but the real turning point was Judge Bradwell’s decision that Mrs. Lincoln should simply pack up and go to live with some of Myra’s relatives. When Robert Todd Lincoln tried to stop it, Judge Bradwell threatened to sue Bellevue. Mrs. Lincoln was released. The Lincoln family tried to suppress the letters Robert Todd Lincoln’s mother wrote to the Bradwells, but a Bradwell descendant discovered them and wrote a book about the episode.

Myra Bradwell died in 1894 and is buried in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago. Despite a life of achievement, biographer Friedman noted that Bradwell had once been so thoroughly forgotten that teachers at the Myra Bradwell Elementary School in Chicago had no idea who she was. Friedman, whose 1993 book helped rescue Bradwell from complete obscurity, attributes Bradwell’s obscurity to having tangled over issues with Susan B. Anthony. Anthony thus neglected Bradwell’s contributions in her history of the suffragists. She deserves to be remembered in August as we celebrate the 19th Amendment.