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The Legal Education of Women

May 11, 1900 — Hall, American Social Science Association, Columbian University (now The George Washington University), Washington DC


In the Spanish Chapel of the old Church of Santa Maria Novella, at Florence, a series of figures is painted by Gaddi, pictorially representing Education, as old Florence defined it.

These figures represent, respectively, Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Music, Astronomy, Geometry, Arithmetic, Civil Law, Canon Law, and Theology.

It is easy to see the ascent of the scale from Grammar up to Law: only Theology is placed at a higher point. In the fresco, St. Thomas Aquinas holds a painted book, inscribed with words from the Book of Wisdom,

“I willed, and sense was given unto me.
I prayed, and the spirit of Wisdome came upon me  
And I set her before kingdoms and thrones.”

“This,” says Ruskin, “is the process of all noble education: reward given to faithful volition.”

Let us look for one moment at these fine figures which typify Law. Both are of women. Civil Law is garbed in red, “symbolizing power or zeal.” She wears a golden circlet, and carries the world in her hand. “Her face is very calm and beautiful.” Of her Ruskin says, “She is the Universal Justice of the peaceful relations of men throughout the world: she is also the law of eternal equity, not erring statute. ”With her, to complete the picture, is a beautiful figure of Justinian, the Institutes in his left hand.

Following “the Justice which rules men” comes the Christian Law, “the Equity of humanity.” She wears a white mantle and golden robe. She holds a church in her hand. With her is Pope Clement V. Wonderful symbols of the World and the Church! Law, the true force in ruling both, and, to the eternal honor of womanhood, both finding their presentment in her likeness.

To such idealism we owe a debt of gratitude. There has been always, in individual instances, the recognition of woman’s capacity for the great things of life. To the love of fathers for their daughters, and of husbands and brothers, which saw through the conventional regard, the power of greatness in true women’s souls, is owing the development of modern life, which says, with John Stuart Mill, that she shall have, what man prizes above all earthly good, — her individual independence, and her right to choose the best gifts.

So, even in mediæval days, learning was hers  did she but choose it. In 1100 Countess Matilda of Tuscany established the chair of jurisprudence in the University of Bologna, and in this hall of learning women received recognition. They were called to important posts, and lectured within the walls of their Alma Mater on law; and their names we are proud to recall on all occasions, Laura Bassi, Clotilde Tambroni, and the beautiful Novella Calderini, who lectured behind the veil. All received the Doctorate of Laws. In New York University we hang their pictured likenesses in the Law Library, where their sedate faces look on the busy throng of aspirants for legal honors of to-day.

In Spain, from the eighth to the eleventh century, women were judges and jurists, and lectured in Cordova, Granada, and Seville.

Cassandra Felice, in the fifteenth century, was Doctor of Laws at the age of twenty-one. As she conferred the degrees at Padua, she must have been dean or professor of jurisprudence. Time was kind to Cassandra (who was often called the Phoenix), for she lived to the age of one hundred and one years.

In 1335 Novella d’Andrea, beautiful and renowned, was professor of canon law. In ancient Rome, also, women were permitted to appear before the courts; and the intellect of the women of Greece commanded the respect of the great Aristotle himself.

Dr. Hubbell finds in these distinguished women Doctors of Law before the Renaissance the inspiration for Shakespeare’s beautiful jurist and judge.

Not only in Continental Europe, but in England, also, the history of woman, so monotonous in the main, often broadens out, and she touches the life of the race with power. We recall Queen Eleanor, acting as keeper of the seals, presiding in the Aula Regis, hearing causes; Anne, Countess of Pembroke, sheriff of Westmoreland; and many other instances where women of property held hereditary offices, — namely, high constable, great chamberlain, champion of the coronation, clerk of the crown, in the court of King’s Bench, regent, and queen.

It is conceded these were exceptional women; and yet from the days when Deborah sat as a judge in Israel and Miriam led the triumphant hosts, the course of history has shown that leadership sometimes devolves on the woman, as well as on the man, and finds her equal to it.

The president of the Woman’s Legal Education Society, New York University, quoting Hollinshed, has reminded us that “women entering on the study of the English law are but retaking that which belongs to them.” The origin of law in England is said to have been a set of Statutes, prepared by one of Britain’s early queens. “Alfred the Great, it is claimed, adopted the laws of the queen named Proba, or the Just, including trial by jury, the just descent of property, and other statutes.” Admitted in England to feudal tenures which gave them some judicial power, women were not primarily, as of course, excluded from a voice in the government as electors, especially in the manor times. Aylesbury tells us of Dorothy Pakington in 1572, lady of the manor, who during her son’s minority returned two members to Parliament. In 1628 the parliamentary returns for Gatton, included a woman; and in an ancient case, Catherine v. Surry, it was decided that a feme sole, if she has a freehold, may vote for members of Parliament, but that, if married, her husband must act for her.

However, except in the Isle of Man, this question now rests on debatable ground, though some form of participation in the public affairs is granted to women of property in many parts of the Old World and in the United States, even in the old and conservative community at the mouth of the Mississippi, where women have not control over their own wages.

In pre-Revolutionary days it is conceded in New Jersey and some other communities, where the word “person” was used in expressing qualifications, women participated even in the Presidential elections, until 1807.

Mistress Margaret Brent acted as executrix of the estate of Leonard Calvert, first lord proprietor and governor of Maryland, and was listened to by the courts as his lordship’s attorney, practising in all the courts of the State, and demanding a voice in Colonial affairs.

Abigail Adams, at the close of the last century, also pleaded for a larger liberty for women; and others joined with eloquence in the plea.

A curious link between the old and the new has just been severed. Lady Louisa Tighe, lately deceased, in Woodstock, had a unique position, being the only woman besides the queen, in Great Britain, having the power to pardon criminals, even at the foot of the scaffold. This right she exercised twice a year, by virtue of an hereditary dispensation. She ruled from 1878, the vast and splendid domain of Woodstock, with almost the power of a monarch. Every morning she held court  The people gathered outside her windows, and stated their cases in the same way the subjects of an Oriental King appeal to him. Lady Louisa heard their stories, gave her decisions, and they were unquestioningly obeyed. Once she banished her steward from the realm for the theft of the great Richmond diamond, which he confessed.

In a very learned treatise by M. Ostrogorski, to which I acknowledge a debt of gratitude, he says that “positive law is opposed to the admission of women to political power.” In this work, “The Rights of Women, ”he ably sums up the countries which concede to them, sovereignty, regency, franchise, eligibility to office, and educational and professional rights, and finds that, while the progress of the present day is, as yet, opposed to granting to women political rights, yet — everywhere her rights to property and to education (her individual rights) are freely conceded.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, no college opened its doors, for social prejudice frowned upon the enfranchisement of women, The days when women filled the chairs of learning in Spain and Italy seemed forgotten, and the German proverb that “one tongue is enough for a woman” tacitly influenced public opinion. To day we need not argue on the question of the desirability of higher education for a woman . The wide-open doors of colleges and universities have settled that forever. “ Woman’s sphere,” said Dr. Faunce at our alumnæ banquet, “is a real sphere, and not simply a few points on man’s sphere.”

In correspondence with many of our universities, we find provision for woman’s admission to some departments, even when she is excluded from that of law, as in Yale, Princeton is a notable exception to this rule; for “although” as Chancellor MacCracken phrased it, “it is not good for man to be alone, Princeton has been alone for one hundred and fifty years!” Edinburgh University has just conferred its first degree on a woman, Miss Ormerod, the celebrated entomologist, having been made a Doctor of Laws.

Leaving this brief historical sketch, the question meets us, Is legal education a benefit to a woman? Austin Abbott has said: “Some study of the law is of prime importance in the complete education of every human being. The mental discipline, in a thorough study of legal practice, is unequalled. It tends to make the mind more reasonable, consistent, logical, and well balanced, and is as useful to women as to men, whether they apply the knowledge to the practice of law, or to any other vocation.”

Almost the last appearance of this great Jurist was at the home of the president of the Woman’s Legal Education Society, when he addressed the friends of the Woman’s Law Class in New York, and gave his ringing words, heartily and freely, in commendation of their work. Quoting Blackstone’s famous words, “Every gentleman should study law, ”he applied them to every human being, and, like John Stuart Mill, in his noble essay on the “Subjection of Woman,” pointed out the gain to the race, which would ensue, when woman’s intellect should be trained, as is man’s. He explained law as “the rule of Society”; and, sketching woman’s hapless condition under the Common Law, he described briefly modern legislation, which has so immeasurably benefited her status, and its effect, especially upon the life and property rights which have lately come to her.

Thus the various Acts which have given to women property rights, power over wages , and power to make wills, have been so many new responsibilities urging them to study to be worthy. The multiplied political clubs, have taught them what they need to know, but the deeper voice of necessity has shut out the din of social pleasure; and woman, as John Stuart Mill prophesied of her, is all the more winning, for growing intellect, and all the more lovable, for high culture and sound common sense. The different position which she holds in this century, was brought about, in part, by her persistent agitation, (for it is said, “If a woman can not argue, she can reiterate,”) but mainly by the noble friendship and championship of the best men of the community. The writer begs, above all things, to recognize that woman’s progress in the nineteenth century has gone hand in hand with man’s generosity, and points to the statutes of the Empire State, as witness to the fact, that there, woman has larger power over her property, than has her husband; for she can buy, sell, mortgage, alien, release, and convey her realty free from all control of her husband, while his right in these respects is always limited by her dower .

Our able lecturer in New York University, has recently explained “why law schools are crowded”; for law is a liberal education. Every argument which would sustain the position, that a man should know the laws he lives under, would equally apply to a woman. Some of the largest estates are held to-day by women heirs; some of the most momentous questions of the modern law concern their status. It is impossible to put woman back into the seclusion of the Pauline period, where her only source of information was “to ask her husband at home.” With increased responsibility, as given her by the trend of modern law, she must be taught her position, as woman, as property-holder, as litigant, and as citizen. A man, in his business, must know the laws: a woman, in her environment, is equally under their power , and must therefore know her place in the body politic.

Again, her avocations lead her to-day into the business world. She herself has been the gainer, in independence, in common sense, and in the possession of that sweet sense of independence which, once known, is not easily relinquished; and it is a pleasure to add a tribute here to the gentle dignity with which these young women bear themselves  Woman ‘ s work in medicine is acknowledged to be valuable, but opinions differ as to her place in the legal profession. Dr. Russell has said, “As justice and equity know no distinction of sex, so the commonwealth of intellect can not deny to women the freedom of the city.”

What, then, is the standing of woman in legal education to-day? When Oberlin opened its doors to women a great step was taken; but the law schools were later to welcome her. In 1869 Mrs. Belle Mansfield was admitted in Iowa to practise law, and the same year the University of Iowa invited women students. Chief Justice Austin Adams favored the recognition of woman’s ability, and withstood a tide of dissent in doing so. He admitted Mrs. Foster to practice in his court , against the protest of his associates, and lent such influence and encouragement to the cause of liberal education, that women of society in Dubuque entered the Law School, to encourage by their presence the young women students, and give them countenance.

Michigan followed Iowa; and Boston Law School was opened to women in 1872, California in 1873, and Missouri in 1880. Illinois and other States followed; and when, in 1886, the legislature of New York, admitted, by statute, women to practise law, Cornell and New York University provided for them a place to prepare to do so. It was no small change when all this was accomplished, in conservative New York; for there such social revolutions move slowly and reluctantly, and people do not lightly adopt new ways. In the more untrammelled civilizations of the Western States there have been no restrictions on the admission of women to the universities; and many of them are in office, and successful in practice.

What has been the result of this new opportunity, and what are modern women doing in law? It is true that Belgium denied ten years ago to Mlle. Popelin the right to practise law, saying that women had not the leisure nor the aptitude necessary for the struggles and fatigues of the legal profession. On the other hand, France has given to Mlle. Jeanne Chauvan, author of the “Evolution of Woman,” recognition at her bar; and Canada has followed with her partial admission, allowing them to be solicitors, attorneys, proctors, and in Ontario and British Columbia barristers. Zürich honored Mrs. Kempin as instructor in law; and in our own city, New York, three women were recently appointed receivers by Justice McLean.

Madame Tel Seno, of Japan , is to-day one of the most influential women of the country, practising her chosen profession, the law, in the land of the Mikado, and devoting her whole life to the education of her sex. India has a Parsee woman lawyer, who has contributed to the welfare of her sisters, who are forbidden by religion and custom to receive legal advice from men.

In the American Law Review of August, 1894, an interesting article by Chief Justice Howe, of Wyoming, sums up his experience of women as jurors, and closes with these words: “I have never, in my twenty-five years of constant experience in the courts of the country, seen more faithful, intelligent, and absolutely honest, grand and petit jurors than these.”

From the same State, some years before, the Review published a letter by Mrs. Esther Morris, the first woman justice of the peace in America, who, writing to a friend, opened her letter with the words, “For our privileges in this State we are indebted to the generosity of the men of Wyoming.” She describes her work in office, and explains that she did not neglect her home duties while an incumbent, adding , “In about thirty civil actions tried before me there has been but one appeal taken, and the judgment was affirmed in the court above.”

In Wyoming, also, when admitting Miss Heberd, November, 1899  the first woman to ask admission to that bar, Judge Bramel said, “I believe women ought to have equal rights with men in every branch of study and in the professions, and I believe the day is not far distant when this will be accorded her.”

Mrs. Haskell, of Helena, Montana, in 1889 secured the passage of a law by the legislature permitting women to practise law. There many offices are open to them, — service on the school board, county superintendent of schools, and others.

For more than twenty years Miss King has practiced in Wisconsin, and won recognition by her talents. It would be impossible to tell of all here, who are able in their profession.

Mrs. Bradwell, of Illinois, founded the Legal News, one of the best law journals published, and one which is carried on, since her death , by her husband. The story of her application for admission to practice law, and her refusal, is well known. The court rested its refusal at first on the ground that “she was a married woman, ”but finally gave to her womanhood alone the weight of its judicial “No.” It is gratifying to know the same court afterward, of its own motion, admitted her to the coveted privilege.

One woman from the same State is practising law in the Klondike, and one is public guardian in Cook County, Chicago, having in her care the estates of more than three hundred orphans. Chicago has also a woman lawyer who is blind. Miss Miller edits the Forum.

The experience of Miss Knowles in Maine interests us, as showing the ordinary course of events in this direction namely, that when courts refuse woman’s application, then legislatures come to her aid. Chief Justice Peters, who presided at the term of court to which she applied , declined to allow her to be examined, without a prior construction of the law relating to attorneys by the law court  and the case was there reported in 1899; but the legislature convened in January, 1899, and an Act was passed in favor of woman’s right, to practise law in Maine. In 1872 Mrs. Nash was admitted in the same State in Washington County, but the fact seemed to have established no precedent . Many States have a few women lawyers only. Few have more than ten or twelve. New York with about forty, and Illinois with eighty-seven, easily lead.

Women who are not intending to practise law are yet studying for culture, and to comprehend legal advice. The Woman’s Law Class of New York University offers to them unparalleled advantages. One of the university’s’ ablest lecturers has charge of the class, and inspires with enthusiasm for legal study all who attend the course. In the ten years since it was founded, over six hundred women have taken the chancellor’s certificate conferred on those who successfully pass a strict examination. It has been said of this class, “No other institution in the metropolis is so eloquent a commentary upon social and professional changes. ”Ten years ago the first step was taken for its inauguration, and at first it was said, the class would never be utilized , by those for whose benefit it was planned. To-day it stands , a successful experiment, endowed by its friends, and accepted as a permanent part of university extension work, — a class which teaches “Outlines of Law, “and supplies to women the knowledge which the non-professional woman finds so hard to secure. The lawyers of our city are now sending their stenographers to the Woman’s Law Class, and can testify to the usefulness of the work .

A class textbook of great attractiveness has been prepared, but found to be so valuable an addition to the text-books already in use, that it has been adopted not only in New York University Law School, but in many others. It gives, with great acuteness, definite knowledge, and yet suggests the exceptions and variations of the various bodies of law. The “Outlines of Law ” is studied with an enthusiastic appreciation , which makes the uninitiated recall the old caution, “Beware of the man with one book. ”Many of the students of this class have testified to its influence, and its effect in broadening and enlightening their minds. The work is entirely “extension work,” leading to no degree; and yet the students have, many of them, here discovered their aptitude for legal study, and about fifteen of its graduates have entered the regular Law School, carrying their enthusiasm into the sterner study of the preparation for the bar. Miss Stanleyetta Titus was the first woman to thus enter the profession, and graduated with distinction, being admitted afterwards (June, 1894), the first woman lawyer in New York State .


Thirty-four States admit women unreservedly to practise law, and wherever there are law schools in those States, with the exception of Yale and Princeton, women may be candidates for degrees. Eighty-seven have been admitted to practice in Illinois, forty in New York, thirty in Iowa, twenty in Massachusetts, twenty five in Missouri, ten in the District of Columbia, twenty-five in Nebraska, nine in Oregon, “two or three” in Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, Washington, and Wisconsin, six in Michigan, two in Florida, Idaho, and Connecticut, one in Arizona, Maine, Montana, Utah, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming. From Pennsylvania the number is uncertain, because there admission is by county  and the number could not be ascertained by inquiry. From California, Kansas, Indiana, and Texas the answer is, “but few.”

Virginia  Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, South Carolina, and Vermont prohibit woman’s entrance to their bar.

In Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, and Rhode Island, “Law is silent, — none have ever applied. ”Yet Maryland and South Carolina admit them to their law schools.

In Missouri and California, nine have graduated from the law schools, in Illinois and Massachusetts, twenty-five, eight in Wisconsin, twenty in Michigan, sixty-five in New York, about nine in Nebraska, ten in Kansas, fourteen in Iowa, three in Oregon, the same in Washington, four in Pennsylvania, one in Colorado, and from other schools an indefinite number .

So far as we can discover, with exactness, admission was by statute in New York, Iowa, Illinois, Maine , Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and New Jersey; by decree of court, in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin; “Always,” “Never prohibited, ”in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

Speech Isabella Mary Pettus


Source: Journal of Social Science, Containing the Transactions of the American Association, Issue 38 (New York: GP Putnam’s Sons) 1900, pp. 234-244.