Trailblazers: Lady Lawyers in the 19th Century

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Book 3 of my historical cozy mystery series the Adele Gossling Mysteries, introduces a new character into the small town of Arrojo. Rebecca Gold is a lawyer who has come to town to open her own practice after having been treated like a clerk rather than a lawyer at the big city law firms where she worked. 

How common were women lawyers in the 19th and early 20th centuries? As you might imagine, not that common. The separate spheres made it difficult for women to venture outside the private sphere of home, family, and church. The law, being one of the most public spheres out there (right alongside politics and business) was, therefore, largely off-limits to women. 

But there were a few who did brave the social and even legal limits to study law. The first of these was Arabella Mansfield. In 1869, she became the first woman lawyer in America. Although her home state of Iowa forbade women to take the bar exam, Mansfield defied this practice and took it anyway. Her very high marks swayed Iowa legislation to relax these laws a bit and allow women to take the bar exam. Mansfield became an apprentice at her brother’s law firm early on during her studies, but once she passed the bar exam, decided to forgo law for activism and education instead, including women’s suffragism.

Alongside her was Ada Kepley who, in 1870, earned her law degree from Northwestern University. However, her home state of Illinois also didn’t allow women to take the bar exam and, unlike Iowa, Illinois legislation wasn’t budging on this so Kepley was unable to actually make use of her law degree. Kepley did eventually take the bar exam in 1881 and passed but, like Arabella Mansfield, chose to use her experience and knowledge for activism, particularly temperance and — you guessed it — women’s suffragism.

Photo Credit: Drawing of Charlotte E. Ray, before 1911, unknown author: Gobonobo/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

And let us not forget Charlotte E. Ray who was the first African American woman to practice law. She received her law degree in 1872 and was admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia Supreme Court. Unlike Mansfield and Kepley, however, Ray did eventually open her own office, specializing in corporate law. Sadly, she only kept her doors open for a few years, as racial prejudice made gaining a steady clientele difficult. She took her knowledge and experience and became a teacher, focusing on education and later, women’s suffragism.

You’ll notice a pattern here: these three women either never put their law degree to use or they only practiced for a very short time. Why? I’m sure mistrust of women in so lucrative a field had something to do with it (and we know in Charlotte E. Ray’s case, there was added racial prejudice). Maybe it was also that the time and dedication needed to practice law made it difficult for these women to juggle both the public and the private spheres (since we might assume they also had the duties of the home on their shoulders whereas a male lawyer was largely exempt from that). Or maybe it was just the ideologies of the separate spheres die hard, even for progressive women. 

In my book, however, Rebecca Gold is a practicing lawyer and her first case gets her in plenty of hot water. Find out how in Death At Will, coming out on October 29, but available for a special preorder price here. And while you’re at it, pick up a free copy of Book 1, The Carnation Murder, here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Author: tammayauthor

Writing has been Tam May’s voice since the age of fourteen. She writes stories set in the past that feature sassy and sensitive women characters. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and features suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with the town’s more conventional ideas about women’s place. She has also written historical fiction about women breaking loose from the social and psychological expectations of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in the Midwest because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting yummy plant-based dishes.

2 thoughts on “Trailblazers: Lady Lawyers in the 19th Century”

  1. Oh, how exciting! I love your books! I’ve read book 1, am reading book 2, and have just pre-ordered book 3! My grandmother was among the first female lawyers in NY but my grandfather wouldn’t let her practice law as he was a jealous man and he didn’t want her in the public eye! She ended up not using her degree and raising her 6 children.

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