Committee of the Historical Records of the New York County Clerk, Inc. and

the Arthur W. Diamond Law Library, Columbia Law School


The Rise of Women in the Legal Profession

There's no single story, no single career, no single event that illustrates the whole picture of women's advancement to professional acceptance and full participation in the legal world. Determined women made path-breaking strides in the profession, but their gains were not easily consolidated or extended to other women without a struggle. In the seventeenth century colony of Maryland, for example, Margaret Brent successfully handled legal matters for the Governor, but she could not be made a voting member of the Maryland Assembly. In nineteenth century Iowa, Belle Mansfield read law in a law office and at home, but she was not admitted to practice until the state court ruled in 1869 that the "white male person" qualification for admission to the bar did not deny the right to females. In 1870, the U.S. Census reported that there were five women lawyers in the country; one of them was certainly Myra Bradwell, who had been denied admission to Illinois bar in 1869, a decision upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1873. Bradwell's subsequent career saw her establish The Chicago Legal News on a sound financial basis.

A real shortage of openings for women as students in law schools did not help the situation. State universities were quicker to admit women law students than private law schools, with the University of Iowa leading the way through admission of women in 1869. In Washington, D.C. two enterprising lawyers, Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillett, founded the Washington College of Law in 1896 (now part of American University) to train both women and men for legal careers. Also during this decade New York University introduced a women's law class designed primarily to acquaint women with their rights rather than to educate them for the bar.

Nevertheless, milestones were passed as women became lawyers in ever increasing numbers: in 1899 the National Association of Women Lawyers was founded in New York City; in 1900 the U.S. Census recorded 1,010 women lawyers in the country; women lawyers were admitted to membership in the ABA in 1918; and women were given the right to vote by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Careers of individual women lawyers also began to progress as they were given increasingly responsible roles in corporate practice or in government positions: Florence Ellinwood Allen of Ohio was appointed to the federal bench by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934; Soia Mentschikoff was the first woman to be made partner in a major Wall Street law firm; Bella Abzug was elected to the House in 1971; Sandra Day O'Connor was sworn into the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981; and Janet Reno was appointed Attorney General in 1993.

Inspiration for this exhibit comes from Judge Judith S. Kaye, whose biographical articles on Kate Stoneman (first woman admitted to the bar in New York State) and Birdie Amsterdam (first woman elected to the Municipal Court in New York County) have clearly demonstrated that the careers of early women lawyers are fruitful areas of research. This exhibit shows not only the high-profile successful women lawyers, but also those whose achievements are less well known but no less significant in providing career-building advice to the many women now in law school or considering law school. Today's women lawyers can become law professors, judges, corporation counselors, government officers, elected officials, and chief executives. Someday soon, one surely will become President.

Whitney S. Bagnall, Curator
Columbia University School of Law, Diamond Law Library
We would like to acknowledge our gratitude and appreciation to the following organizations who have generously loaned documents to this presentation:

Association of the Bar of the City of New York Arthur W. Diamond Law Library, Columbia University

New York County Clerk New York Law Institute New York University School of Law

In addition, many judges and court officials have loaned photographs and printed materials from their collections

Back To Gallery Room