We are quick to take a long and forgetful view of history; after all, from our rapidly advancing vantage point, it is irretrievably lost in the past. This ongoing disassociation with ancient days allows us to sit comfortably while dismissing the injustices, discriminations and prejudices of yesterday as a distant memory of a forgotten time. History fades from our collective consciousness and eventually becomes the substance of myth and legend — if it is not forgotten altogether. Once the past is forgotten, we are condemned to repeat it, unaware that the present may actually be an encore performance with prior injustices, discriminations and prejudices all played out on the same stage. Filled with a forgetful ignorance, we face seemingly new challenges and see each struggle in isolation, as a matter of first impression, thereby reducing our opportunity to avoid preexisting pitfalls. With minimal effort, however, we can avoid the school of our own experience and, through an awareness of our history, avoid the same mistakes and their correlated consequences.
The history of women in the law is replete with emblematic stories of individuals who faced unique challenges and refused to accept popular opinion and certain truths as axiomatic. One of these women is Myra Bradwell. Born in 1831, Bradwell created and edited the Chicago Legal News, a weekly law journal with a national distribution. At a time when there were few, if any, women practicing the law, she sought to become a lawyer. After passing the bar exam with “high honors” in 1869, she was recommended by the Illinois 7th Circuit judge to be admitted as a licensed attorney. Her application was subsequently denied, and on February 5, 1870, the Illinois Supreme Court refused her admission to the state bar. In their opinion, the Court found that “the sex of the applicant … [was] sufficient reason for not granting the license. God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action, and that it belonged to men to make, apply and execute laws, was regarded as an almost axiomatic truth.”
Bradwell appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in Bradwell v. Illinois, the Court confirmed the Illinois Supreme Court’s decisions, with only the Chief Justice dissenting. A blatantly paternalistic and chauvinistic concurring opinion reads: “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 Constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony, not to say identity, of interest and views which belong, or should belong, to the family institution is so repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband. … This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adopted to the general constitution of things, and cannot be based upon exceptional cases.”
With many other women confronting similar injustices, Bradwell sought legislative relief. In 1872, the Illinois state legislature passed a bill that forbade the state from excluding people from occupations because of their sex. This eliminated one of the roadblocks that prevented equality and opportunity for women in the legal profession.
One summary of Bradwell’s contributions reads: “Myra Bradwell was a tireless worker on behalf of legal reform and women’s rights in Illinois and the nation. She believed that women’s lives should not be restricted by prevailing social norms. She also believed that her legal colleagues should conduct themselves with honor and integrity. Throughout her life, she devoted great energy and devotion to her causes — fighting for an end to slavery and racial discrimination, greater equality and opportunity for women, and reforms related to the legal profession.”
Bradwell’s individual experience and the women’s suffrage movement in the United States demonstrate that those who justify injustice on the grounds of “axiomatic truths” and irrefutable, self-evident “facts” may want to reconsider their validity. Are such truths indeed true, or is their prejudice merely supported by the inertia of traditions? Bradwell and the other supporters of the cause of her day were the revolutionary force needed to facilitate the many valuable contributions of women in the law today. D