by Jill Norgren. New York: New York University Press, 2013. 286pp. Cloth $30.00. ISBN: 9780814758625

Reviewed by Kiki Jamieson, The Fund for New Jersey. Email: kjamieson [at]


Stories of the struggles faced by the United States’ first women lawyers, related judiciously by Professor Jill Norgren, bring to life women who have not often been the subjects of study. Like the best accounts of plaintiffs in landmark cases, REBELS AT THE BAR highlights the happenstance of law and legal history. Although with modern hindsight the inclusion of women as lawyers seems inevitable, the actual record Norgren highlights shows that it was instead the outcome of lucky coincidences, benevolent male supporters, and, most importantly, the dogged perseverance of a handful of remarkable women. Through detailed explorations of the lives of eight women, and sojourns into the experiences of many others, Norgren charts the slow progress from individual women’s perhaps quixotic desire to be lawyers in the late 1860s, to the burgeoning camaraderie of the “sisters-in-law” who formed the Congress of Women Lawyers in 1893, to 1900 when twenty women had been admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and more than 1,000 identified themselves as lawyers.

Myra Bradwell, the most famous of the group, was the subject of an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming state’s powers to regulate the practice of law. She is known to even beginning students of legal history as the object of Justice Bradley’s hyperbolic concurring opinion, in which he declaimed:

[T]he civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman's protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. … The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things, and cannot be based upon exceptional cases (BRADWELL V. THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, 83 US 130 (1873) quoted at pp.140-142).

But Norgren tells us something new: that “lawyers in the courtroom laughed out loud as Justice Bradley read his theory of separate spheres” (p.42). These disparate reactions to the idea of women lawyers are explored in great detail through six chapters of biography.

For example, Norgren’s account puts Myra Bradwell’s effort in a larger historical context and shows her entrepreneurism and determination. Bradwell began reading law with her [*327] husband James, hoping that shared professional interests would strengthen their marital relationship. During the Civil War, Bradwell suspended legal work and focused on war relief, running with other women a two-week Northwestern Fair that raised $80,000 for medical relief. This experience, coupled with increasing optimism about opportunities for women in civic and commercial life, led to Bradwell founding in 1868 the Chicago Legal News (CLN). CLN’s motto “Lex Vincit” (Law Conquers) would have been more accurately rendered as “Bradwell Conquers,” as she systematically built a legal publishing juggernaut. First, she secured an unusual charter from the Illinois legislature, enabling her to sign her own contracts and keep her earnings as publisher and editor. CLN quickly became an industry leader, publishing reports of judicial decisions and commentaries on important issues of the day. The next year Bradwell formed a special relationship with the state, allowing CLN to publish new legislation and serve as the primary resource for legislative action. When the Chicago Fire destroyed law books and legal records, CLN filled the void and became the sole source of official records recreated after the originals were lost. Over the next decade Bradwell built CLN into an institution indispensable to lawyers in Illinois and beyond.

After her loss at the Supreme Court, Bradwell responded quickly, working with her husband and allies to lobby the Illinois legislature for a bill (later passed) that gave women the right to work including the right to practice law. Interestingly, Bradwell’s determination manifested as stubbornness and she “refused to reapply for bar admission, maintaining that the Illinois Supreme Court had been mistaken in turning her down” (p.43). Although Myra Bradwell saw her daughter Bessie graduate from Union College of Law in 1882, she never practiced herself.

Belva Lockwood, in contrast, practiced law in Washington, D.C. and became the first woman member of the Supreme Court of the U.S. bar in 1879. Lockwood, a two-time candidate for President, was the subject of two previous biographies by Norgren. Lockwood is a fascinating character – brave and bold, she wrangled her law diploma from National University Law School by buttonholing President Ulysses S. Grant with what Norgern describes as “a short and alarmingly rude note” (p.83). Lockwood’s experiences are ripe for retelling too because her archives are vast. Norgren’s research yields sometimes overwhelming accounts of specific transactions, office locations and decorations, and family correspondence, all of which add up to a very detailed picture of a pioneer lawyer.

In these accounts and others, including Mary Hall (the first woman lawyer in Connecticut), Clara Foltz (first woman lawyer on the Pacific Coast, and champion of women’s right to attend University of California’s Hastings College of Law, though she herself was unable to do so), and Catharine Waugh McCulloch (first woman Justice of the Peace in Illinois), Norgren deftly guides readers through the many obstacles her subjects faced as they pursued legal careers. Her meticulous approach suggests that she is telling us all there is to know about these women’s experiences. We learn about the petty jealousies of pettifoggers determined to [*328] keep women out of the practice of law. We learn about the intersections of the suffrage movement, the temperance movement, and the well-paid public speaking circuit many of these women travelled to earn a living. We learn about the isolation newly minted women lawyers faced, sitting in barely decorated offices and hoping clients would appear. And we learn of the work they did advocating for incarcerated children, women seeking divorce, poor criminal defendants, and others who needed legal help at a lower cost. Indeed, Clara Foltz was the first to argue passionately for an office of public defender to protect the rights of those defendants facing the enormous power of the state.

At other times, the silences in Norgren’s narrative make clear how thoroughly she looked for information about these women’s lives and how much the histories are missing when records are not available. For example, Norgren tantalizingly mentions that groundbreaker Belva Lockwood was the second woman admitted to the District of Columbia bar. She writes:

The first woman admitted to the District bar, Charlotte E. Ray, had enrolled at Howard Law School in 1870, completed the course of study, and won admission to the District bar in March 1872, when the names of her entire class were forwarded to the bar committee. Debate continues, however, as to whether Ray used her initials and was thought to be a man, or employed the influence of her father, the nationally prominent African American minister Charles B. Ray. She practiced in the District for a few years but then moved to New York City, where she taught school (p.83).

The news that the first woman member of the D.C. bar was African American highlights the significance of the absence. Another example, mentioned only in passing: “it is likely that African American teacher and journalist Mary Ann Shadd Cary enrolled in 1869 at Howard Law School in Washington, D.C., making her, also, one of the country’s very first women law school students” (p.35). Perhaps Norgren’s next book will include the early history of Howard Law School.

In the meantime, REBELS AT THE BAR will be of interest to undergraduate and graduate students of American legal history, labor, and gender. Norgren’s well written and thorough volume illuminates the experiences of these determined women and shows the impact of their struggles on the legal profession and the struggles for women’s civil rights.

Copyright 2014 by the Author, Kiki Jamieson.