340: Rebels at the Bar by Jill Norgren

by Gerard


340.0820973: Norgren, Jill. Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers. New York: New York University Press, 2013. 212 pp. ISBN 978-0-8147-5862-5.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 340: Law
  • +082: Women
  • +0973: United States

Jill Norgren, in her upcoming book Rebels at the Bar, wants to shine a light on a forgotten corner of American history. While there are many woman law practitioners today, the mid-1800s saw the breaking of the barrier. America had come out of the Second Great Awakening with an interesting amount of education societies of which women were a large part. With new-found access to education (no thanks to men legislators and officials), they sought to work along side their male counterparts in many notable professions. This included the law. While lawyers were generally seen in the same way as we do today, well-meaning members of society thought the law to be a noble calling. Norgren’s book details the life and times of eight pioneering women in the field.

This book covers:

  • Myra Bradwell—the first woman to be admitted to the Illinois bar. She founded the Chicago Legal News, a publication which compiled local and federal legal decisions.
  • Lavinia Goodell—the first woman licensed to practice law in Wisconsin.
  • Belva Lockwood—the first woman attorney licensed to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Clara Foltz—the first woman licensed to practice law in California.
  • Mary Hall—the first woman admitted to the Connecticut bar, whose licensure led to the first judicial decision explicitly stating that women were permitted to practice law.
  • Catharine McCulloch—the first woman appointed as a justice of the peace in Illinois. She was notable for conducting marriage ceremonies wherein the word “obey” was omitted from the woman’s vows.
  • Lelia Robinson and Mary Greene—the first two women to be admitted to the Massachusetts bar.

While each woman led different lives, there are similar undercurrents in each of their tales. They had to fight against public opinion which held that women should stick to domestic jobs and that they could not handle the brutality of criminal court. They were almost always involved in suffrage and women’s rights movements and advocated that the inclusion of women into the legal sphere would invariably lead to a better field of practice.

Norgren’s biographies are tidy but laden with legal back-and-forth. While historically complete, they are not terribly exciting. That said, however, the tales still have much I found interesting. After reading about civil rights violations in the American South, their plight seemed eerily familiar. These women were seen as disrupting the social order, as headstrong ruffians with nothing better to do but become rabble-rousers. All they wanted was to be was seen as full-fledged members of American society with all the rights and privileges they were entitled to. Norgren was right: they were forgotten—but only for a while. A dense and enlightening book.