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A Speech by the Lady Bachelor at Law

May 17, 1871 — home of Dr. and Mrs. G.S. Walker, at a dinner in honor of her graduation from Washington University Law School, St. Louis MO


Two years ago I entered upon the study of the law with many forebodings, toned with many conflicts and doubts as to its expediency, yet, actuated solely by a desire to open new paths for woman, enlarge her usefulness, widen her responsibilities and to plead her cause in a struggle which I believed was surely coming. I have steadily pursued my way, encouraged by many and discouraged by not a few; feeling at every step, however, amply repaid for the struggles which it has occasioned, until, having finished the cause and kept the faith, I stand ready to fight the good fight for justice and humanity.

[William] Blackstone says: “For I think it an undeniable position that a competent knowledge of the laws of that society in which we live, [is] a proper accomplishment of every gentleman and scholar, and highly useful — I had almost said an essential — part of liberal and polite education.” Had the learned gentleman lived in our day, we should tell him that we deem it an essential part of woman’s education, also: and it would seem as if, amid the swift changes of the present, when, perhaps, the unwelcome responsibility of a voice in framing her country’s laws will be conferred upon her, woman should hasten to repair her ignorance of its laws and needs, by a thorough knowledge and acquaintance of those which govern her and affect humanity. Her moral and political irresponsibility seems one; she can no longer retain the lily’s passive state in the world’s field of action; henceforth, she must be a helper, not an idler; and, believing this, I am glad to welcome any and all movements which tend to lift woman out of her narrow, traditional life, and place her upon her feet, where she may think and act for herself. Hitherto, the doctrine of self-reliance, self-culture, personal responsibility, has never been taught to woman; she has been regarded as created for man’s self-love, alone; with no soul to feel, no mind to expand, no brain to weigh argument, no individual accountability to render her Maker, and thus the race has slowly, painfully, climbed the heights of progress, dragging a dead weight, securely manacled at feet and wrists, which its own hands have forged. This inert mass now threatens death and destruction unless released from bondage. Woman’s irresponsibility and man’s culpable negligence is working ruin to our social and political fabric; and, unless some power can galvanize the slumbering virtue of this people into new life, we, as a nation, are doomed to irresistible disaster.

But, I rejoice to-day that my native state, destined to be, I trust, a grand controlling power of the future, has broken one of the links of this chain, and bidden the captive live. Henceforth, on Missouri’s banner shall be written, “Dared to do right — dared to be true.” To the Washington university, which has thus conferred this honor upon her, let me return thanks for all true men and women. The law faculty and board of directors by unanimous action, signified their willingness to open the doors of this institution to woman, nobly declaring that sex should be no barrier to those who desire to acquaint themselves with the laws of their country, or to enlarge the mind and cultivate the judgment by a study of that science which furnishes the intellect with food at every step; and I think, gentlemen, that your university may become as celebrated in the future as was the University of Bologna, Italy, in the past. It was long the chief glory and the most ancient of Italy’s schools, famous for a lengthened period as the first law school of Europe. It has the peculiar honor of having had the professors’ chair in almost every department filled at some period or another by learned ladies. Novella de Andrea was renowned as the learned professor of the canon law; Laura Bair [Bain?], a lady doctor of laws, had the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy. The beauty of Christiana de Pianu, another of these lady professors, is said to have been so fascinating that when she lectured it was necessary to have a curtain drawn before her in order that the students might not be distracted by her charming face from the clear study of the law. It was here the researches of medicine were extended by introducing human dissection, and it is probable we owe this important discovery to a woman, as Anna Marzelenu, noted for her dexterous handling of the scalpel, was one of the professors of surgery, and her was preparations of every part of the human body become [sic] the pride of Bologna. Within its walls, originated the discovery of galvanism, and if the c[e]lebrity of that university is partly due to the influence of its learned and fascinating lady professors, I hope, gentlemen, that the fame of your institution is already established in the future.

To the law faculty I desire to tender my personal thanks for the many words of encouragement and the courtesies which have been extended to me during my two years of study. To Judge Krum I am especially indebted for my first introduction to the school, and substantial aid in the loan of legal works throughout the term. To Judge Reber I tender the gratitude of a sincere woman’s heart for the words spoken in behalf of her sex at the graduating exercises. To one whose soul has bene sadly torn and bruised by endless friction with the carping spirits and narrow minds of to-day, his kind and fatherly anointing fell as oil upon the trouble waters.  In him and the faculty whom he represents I recognize the honor which Charlotte Wilborne tells us “is the finest sense of absolute justice tempered by the tenderness of the largest benevolence. The inborn patent of nobility drawn primarily for the basis of our own respect, it is benevolent, because it recognizes in the individual ego the universal humanity, and finding its own soul worthy of respect, confesses the in[n]ate worth of all souls. It is even more scrupulously considerate of another’s rights than of its own, knowing how nobler it is to endure loss than to perpetuate.” And in taking farewell of you, gentlemen, let me express the regret which I feel as the dissolution of the pleasant relations we have sustained. If, as a woman, I was not welcome in the class, the students have never manifested it by word, look or deed, and one of the delightful memories of my life will be my studentship in your college, and as in [the] past, so too in the future I trust there may be no cause for regret in the step taken, but one and all may congratulate ourselves that we were connected with an institution which led the vanguard to a higher civilization, where soul and mind is to be the only criterion of nobility and worth.

In responding especially to the spirit of the toast, let me say that I trust the day is not far distant, when men and women shall be recognized as equal administrators of that great bulwark [sic] of civilization, law. I n this recognition we shall get back to first principles, for as I look ahead, I find that God in his formation of animate and inanimate nature created a duality.

Gentlemen, The sentinels of great ideas, which have kept lonely watch across the centuries, are calling to each other from mountain top and peak, “Watchman, what of the night?” The nineteenth century responds, “Traveller, the dawn usually breaks in the east, but lo! The morning cometh from the west, and the star of Wyoming and Missouri proclaims the birth of freedom’s daughter.



Source: Hardship and Hope, Missouri Women Writing about Their Lives, 1820-1920, eds. Carla Waal, Barbara Oliver Korner (University of Missouri) 1997, pp. 113-116.