March is Women’s History Month! We will be celebrating all month long by highlighting some of our favorite inspiring women in Illinois history.
Throughout her life Myra Colby Bradwell was a progressive and tireless advocate for women’s rights. She was born in Manchester, Vermont on February 12, 1831 to parents who were active abolitionists. She grew up in Vermont and New York, and at the age of 12 she and her family moved to Schaumburg Township, Illinois. Myra attended a finishing school in Kenosha, Wisconsin and then a ladies’ seminary in Elgin, Illinois. In 1851, she began a career as a school teacher. A year later on May 18, 1852 she married James Bradwell, a law student from Palatine, Illinois. The newly married couple moved to Memphis, Tennessee for a short time and operated a private school. After the birth of their first daughter in 1854, Myra and James returned to Illinois and settled in Chicago.
Once in Chicago, James completed his studies and began his legal career. In 1855, he was admitted to the Illinois bar and formed a law practice with Myra’s brother, Frank Colby. In 1861, James was elected as a Cook County judge. Myra Bradwell developed an interest in law and under James’ guidance began reading and studying. She firmly believed that a married couple should work as partners and share in each other’s interests and work. In 1868, Myra established the Chicago Legal News, a weekly newspaper in which she covered nationwide legal news; discussed the legal profession, court decisions, and new legislation; and advocated reform for the profession and women’s social and legal rights. This paper soon became the most important legal publication in the western United States.
After putting her legal studies on hold during the Civil War, Myra passed the Illinois bar exam with high honors in 1869 and applied to the Illinois Supreme Court for admission to the bar. Her request was denied on the grounds that as a married woman she was unfit to practice law. She countered their argument, filing multiple briefs, but again was denied and formally told that a woman could not practice law in the state of Illinois. Bradwell published the court’s decision and her own legal brief challenging the ruling in the Chicago Legal News. In 1870, Myra appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the denial of Bradwell’s admission.
While waiting for a decision from the United States Supreme Court, Myra and James Bradwell assisted two other Illinois women attempting to gain admission to the bar. Alta Hulett from Rockford and Ada Kepley from Effingham were each refused admission based on their sex. Kepley had graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1870 and was the first female law school graduate in the United States. Together, Bradwell, Hulett, and Kepley drafted a bill that would prohibit sex as a barrier to any profession. On March 22, 1872, the Illinois legislature passed this bill which became the first anti-sex-discrimination law in the United States. Hulett reapplied and was admitted to the bar in 1873, and Kepley was admitted in 1881. Bradwell did not reapply to the state bar.
Throughout her career Myra was involved in many important legal cases involving women’s rights. In 1869, she drafted a bill that gave married women the right to retain their own wages and protected the rights of widows. She helped organize Chicago’s first women’s suffrage convention and was active in the founding of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Bradwell argued that women should be treated as rational beings, allowed a space to work in the public sphere, and be able to participate as citizens. She believed that women should not be excluded from a profession because of their gender or marital status. She supported her husband’s efforts to secure legislation to make women eligible to serve as notaries public, in school offices, and to be equal guardians of their children. Both Myra and James Bradwell served on the Illinois Woman’s Suffrage Association’s legislative committee. Myra also acted as an advocate for women’s representation in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and helped lobby Congress to have the exposition held in Chicago. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1891, and though her health was deteriorating throughout the fair, Myra rented a hotel near the fair for a week and attended for a few hours each day in a wheelchair.
In 1890, upon a request from James Bradwell, the Illinois Supreme Court admitted Myra Bradwell to the bar without a reapplication. The court recognized her status retroactively to the date of her initial 1869 application, making her the first woman to be admitted to the Illinois state bar. In 1892, she became the first woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Myra Bradwell died of cancer on February 14, 1894. Myra took great pride in the fact that her work made it possible for other women to enter the legal profession. Her own daughter, Bessie Bradwell Helmer, became a practicing attorney in 1882. After Bradwell’s death, her daughter Bessie continued her mother’s legacy and took over the running of the Chicago Legal News.