MYRA BRADWELL

Source: Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County, Illinois with Portraits 3rd ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co., 1895), pp. 135-138

MYRA BRADWELL. In these latter days of the century, a century which has done more for women than any other in the history of the world, it is interesting to record the life of a citizen of Chicago of national reputation, who wrought earnestly, wisely and successfully for woman’s advancement.

To follow in a pathway which has been made for one is easy. To be an original and practical leader, clearing the way for others to come, is a difficult undertaking. Such a leader was Myra Bradwell, one of the pioneers in the movements to give woman equal rights before the law and equal opportunities to labor in all avocations.

Myra Bradwell was born in Manchester, Vermont, February 12, 1831. In infancy she was taken to Portage, New York, where she remained until her twelfth year, when she came West with her father's family. In the warp of her nature was woven the woof of that sterling New England character which has made such an impress on our national life. On her father’s side she was descended from a family which numbers many noble men, philanthropists, eminent divines and noted statesmen. Her father, Eben Colby, was the son of John Colby, a Baptist minister of New Hampshire. Her father’s mother was a lineal descendant of Aquilla Chase, whose family gave to the world the noted divine, Bishop Philander Chase, of the Episcopal Church, and Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the United States.

On her mother’s side she was a descendant of Isaac Willey, who settled in Boston in 1640. Two members of the family, Allen and John Willey, served in the Revolutionary War, and were in the little army which suffered glorious defeat at Bunker Hill. Her family were aggressive Abolitionists and stanch friends of the Lovejoys. The story of the murdered martyr, Elijah Lovejoy, as recounted by the friend of her youth, Owen Love- joy, made a deep impression upon her mind. Thus early was implanted a hatred of slavery and injustice in the soul of one who was destined, in after years, to bear a conspicuous part in freeing her sex from some of the conditions of vassalage in which it had stood–a champion who broke one of the strongest barriers to woman’s enfranchisement, the Bar, and paved the way for women into the upper halls of justice, into the greatest court of the world. As a student, possessed of a keen, logical mind, with the soul of a poet, she early evinced a deep love for learning, and made the most of the limited educational advantages which were then deemed more than sufficient for girls. After studying at Kenosha and the ladies’ seminary in Elgin, Myra engaged in teaching.

May 18, 1852, Myra Colby was united in marriage with James B. Bradwell. Soon after her marriage she removed with her husband to Memphis, Tennessee. While there she proved herself a veritable helpmate, conducting with her husband the largest select school in the city. In two years they returned to Chicago, where her husband engaged in the practice of the law, and where they have since resided. With the ardor of a true patriot, she could not remain inactive when danger threatened the Government which her Revolutionary ancestors fought to establish. During the war she helped care for the suffering, the wounded and the dying. The Soldiers’ Fair of 1863, and the Fair of 1867 for the benefit of the families of soldiers, had no more active or efficient worker than Mrs. Bradwell. She was a member and secretary of the committee on Arms, Trophies and Curiosities of the great Northwestern Sanitary Fair, and was the leading spirit in producing that artistic and beautiful exhibition in Bryan Hall in 1865. When the war was over, she assisted in providing a home for the scarred and maimed and dependent veterans who shouldered the musket to preserve the Union.

Becoming deeply interested in her husband’s profession, she commenced the study of law under his tutelage, at first with no thought of becoming a practicing lawyer, but subsequently she decided to make the profession her life work, and applied herself diligently to its study. In 1868 she established the "Chicago Legal News,’’ the first weekly law periodical published in the West, and the first paper of its kind edited by a woman in the world, and which stands to-day the best monument to her memory. Believing fully in the power of the law, she adopted as the motto of the “Legal News” the words Lex Vincit, which have always been at the head of its columns. Practical newspaper men and prominent lawyers at once predicted its failure, but they under-estimated the ability and power of its editor. She obtained from the Legislature special acts making all the laws of Illinois and the opinions of the Supreme Court of the State printed in her paper evidence in the courts. She made the paper a success from the start, and it was soon recognized by the Bench and Bar throughout the country as one of the best legal periodicals in the United States. With her sagacity, enterprise and masterful business ability she built up one of the most flourishing printing and publishing houses in the West. Two instances may be cited to show her business energy and enterprise. From the year 1869, when she first began to publish The Illinois session laws, she always succeeded in getting her edition out many weeks in advance of any other edition. At the Chicago fire, in common with thousands of others, she lost home and business possessions, but, undismayed by misfortune, she hastened to Milwaukee, had the paper printed and published on the regular publication day, and thus not an issue of her paper was lost during this trying time in our city’s history.

She finally decided to apply for admission to the Bar and to practice law. She had been permitted to work side by side with her husband as a most successful teacher, why not as a lawyer?

In 1869 she passed a most creditable examination for the Bar, but was denied admission by the Supreme Court of Illinois, upon the ground that she was a married woman, her married state being considered a disability. She knew that the real reason had not been given. She filed an additional brief which combated the position of the court with great force, and compelled the court to give the true reason. In due time the court, by Mr. Chief Justice Lawrence, delivered an elaborate opinion, in which it was said, upon mature deliberation, the court had concluded to refuse to admit Mrs. Bradwell upon the sole ground that she was a woman. She sued out a writ of error against the State of Illinois in the Supreme Court of the United States. Her case in that tribunal was argued in 1871 by Senator Matt Carpenter. In May, 1873, the Judgment of the lower court was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Chief Justice Chase, who never failed to give his powerful testimony to aid in lifting woman from dependence and helplessness to strength and freedom, true to his principles, dissented. As has been well said, “the discussion of the Myra Bradwell case had the inevitable effect of letting sunlight through many cobwebbed windows. It is not so much by abstract reasoning as by visible examples that reformations come, and Mrs. Bradwell offered herself as a living example of the injustice of the law. A woman of learning, genius, industry and high character, editor of the first law journal in the West, forbidden by law to practice law, was too much for the public conscience, tough as that conscience is.” Although Mrs. Bradwell, with Miss Hulett, was instrumental in securing the passage of a law in Illinois granting to all persons, irrespective of sex, freedom in the selection of an occupation, profession or employment, she never renewed her application for admission to the Bar. Twenty years after, the judges of the Supreme Court of  Illinois, on their own motion, performed a noble act of justice and directed license to practice law to be issued to her, and March 28, 1892, upon motion of Attorney-General Miller, Mrs. Bradwell was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.

A pioneer in opening the legal profession for women, Myra Bradwell's signal service to her sex has been in the field of law reform. Finding women and children without adequate protection in the law, she devoted herself with the zeal of an enthusiast to secure such protection. One of the most wonderful phases of her character was the power which she exerted in securing these changes in the law.

It is interesting in this connection to note that she was the only married woman who was ever given her own earnings by special act of the Legislature. She drafted the bill giving a married woman a right to her own earnings. A case in point, so monstrous in its injustice, gave an added impetus to her zeal. A drunkard, who owed a saloon-keeper for his whisky, had a wife who earned her own living as a scrubwoman, and the saloon-keeper garnisheed the people who owed her and levied on her earnings to pay her husband’s liquor bill. It needed but an application like this for her to succeed in her efforts to pass the bill. She also secured the passage of the law giving to a widow her award in all cases. Believing thoroughly in the principle enunciated by John Stuart Mill, “of perfect equality, admitting no privilege on the one side nor disability on the other,” she was an enthusiastic supporter of the bill granting to a husband the same interest in a wife’s estate that the wife had in the husband’s. While holding most advanced views upon the woman question, she recognized that the prejudice of years cannot be overcome in a day, and that the work must be done by degrees .

She therefore never missed an opportunity to try to secure any change in the law which would enlarge the sphere of woman. With this purpose in view, she applied to the Governor to be appointed Notary Public. Finding her womanhood a bar to even this humble office, she induced her husband, who was in the Legislature, to introduce a bill making women eligible to the office of Notary Public, which bill became a law. The bill drafted by her husband permitting women to act as school officers, and which was passed while he was in the legislature, received her hearty support. In all the reforms which Mrs. Bradwell secured, she was not acting as the representative of any organization, but they were secured through her personal influence. Twice Mrs. Bradwell was honored by special appointment of the Governor, being appointed a delegate to the Prison Reform Congress at St. Louis; and it was mainly by her efforts that women, after a severe contest, were allowed a representation on the list of officers, she declining to accept any office herself; subsequently she was appointed by the Governor as one of the Illinois Centennial Association to represent Illinois in the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.

Mrs. Bradwell circulated the call for the first Woman Suffrage Convention held in Chicago, in 1869, and was one of its Vice-Presidents. She was one of the active workers in the suffrage convention held in Springfield in 1869, and for a number of years one of the executive committee of the Illinois Woman Suffrage Association. She also took an active part in the convention at Cleveland which formed the American Woman’s Suffrage Association. Once only was she permitted to exercise the right of suffrage. Under the recent school law in Illinois she cast her ballot for the first and last time, her death occurring on the fourteenth day of February, 1894.

A thorough Chicagoan, in the life, progress and best interests of her city she had a citizen’s interest and a patriot’s pride. She was untiring in her efforts to secure the World’s Fair for Chicago, accompanied the commission to Washington, and rendered valuable services there in obtaining the location of the Exposition in Chicago. She was appointed one of the Board of Lady Managers, and was Chairman of the Committee on Law Reform of its auxiliary congress. It is interesting to note that the woman who labored so courageously, persistently and effectively to secure for women their rights was herself a representative in the first national legislature of women to be authorized by any Government.

Mrs. Bradwell was the first woman who became a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Illinois Press Association; was a charter member of the Soldiers’ Home Board, the Illinois Industrial School for Girls, the Washingtonian Home, and the first Masonic chapter organized for women in Illinois, over which she presided; was a member of the Chicago Women’s Club, the daughters of the American Revolution, the Grand Army Relief Corps, the National Press League and the Woman’s Press Association.

A gentle and noiseless woman, her tenderness and refinement making the firmness of her character all the more effective, Mrs. Bradwell was one of those who live their creed instead of preaching it. Essentially a woman of deeds, not words, she did not spend her days proclaiming on the rostrum the rights of women, but quietly, none the less effectively, set to work to clear away the barriers.

A noble refutation of the oftimes expressed belief that the entrance of women in public life tends to lessen their distinctively womanly character, she was a most devoted wife and mother, her home being ideal in its love and harmony. She was the mother of four children, two of whom survive her, Thomas and Bessie, both lawyers, and the latter the wife of a lawyer, Frank A. Helmer, of the Chicago Bar.

Of this gifted and honored lady it has been truthfully said: “No more powerful and convincing argument in favor of the admissions of women to a participation in the administration of the Government was ever made than may be found in Myra Bradwell's character, conduct and achievements.”

— Submitted by Sherri Hessick on January 30, 2001.

DISCLAIMER: The submitter is not related to the subject of this biography nor is she related to anyone mentioned in the biography.