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Bradwell v. Illinois

The Marriage Disability

The court refused to admit her. The refusal was based " . . . upon the ground that you would not be bound by the obligations necessary to be assumed where the relation of attorney and client shall exist, by reason of the disability imposed by your married condition--it being assumed that you are a married woman . . . "

The disability referred to was a married woman's feme covert status, which was nothing less than her civil and legal death upon marriage. For example, married women--in Illinois up until the year of Bradwell's application--could neither make contracts nor own property. Bradwell took no comfort from the fact that "persons under twenty-one" had also been denied admission "upon the same ground . . . "

Bradwell took another view of her married status. She filed an energetically worded brief with the Illinois Supreme Court the next month. She explained, "Your petitioner admits to your honors that she is a married woman (although she believes the fact does not appear in the record), but insists most firmly that under the laws of Illinois it is neither a crime nor a disqualification." She discussed cases in which married female business owners had operated as feme sole traders (women entitled to conduct business as if single), her own history as the successful editor and an undisputed stockholder of the Chicago Legal News, and the Iowa bar's recent decision to admit Arabella Mansfield. She also discussed the state's Act of 1869, which had removed some of the feme covert "disabilit[ies]" referred to by the Court.

Under that act, married women were no longer to be classed with infants since "a married woman may sue in her own name for her earnings, an infant may not." Bradwell claimed that a woman could now be held "liable as an attorney upon any contract made by her in that capacity." The act also protected a married woman's right to any money she earned whether as an attorney or a sewing-women. "Is it for the court to say, in advance, that it will not admit a married woman?" she asked.

Bradwell amended her brief a few weeks later to include the claim that her constitutional rights, especially as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee that "no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizenship," were being abridged by the State of Illinois.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Bradwell v. Illinois - Significance, The Marriage Disability, The Female Disability, All Or Nothing, God's Say So