Project: Visualization

Timeline – From Bradwell to the Notorious RBG: The Fight For Legal Equality

I first began my long and tirelessly effort on Myra Bradwell in the spring of 2018. I was searching for a research topic that I could write my honors thesis on, so I turned to my History of Women and Law professor, Dr. Phipps for help. When I told her that I wanted to research women’s history but I also really enjoyed learning about United States Supreme Court cases, she suggested that I find a landmark Supreme Court case on women’s rights. Thus, I discovered Bradwell v. Illinois (1873). In 1869, Myra Bradwell passed the Illinois Bar exam with high honors. When she applied for her law license with the State Supreme Court, they refused on the grounds of “her married condition.” During the Victorian era, a common law doctrine called coverture applied to women once they married. Becoming a femme covert upon marriage, a wife’s legal identity was absorbed under the identity of her husband. Thus, married women could not hold property, earnings, or enter contracts under their name. The Illinois State Supreme Court argued that since Bradwell could not even make a contract under her own name, she could not defend someone in the court of law. After this decision, Bradwell appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court under the claim that the state of Illinois violated her privileges and immunities as a citizen, as defined in the newly ratified Fourteenth Amendment. The United States Supreme Court ruled that employment was not protected under the Fourteenth Amendment, thus denying Myra Bradwell the right to practice law. 

Bradwell v. Illinois was the first United States Supreme Court case where a person challenged his or her perscribed gender roles and is often cited as the case that paved a path for the major victories that would later result in the Women’s Rights Movement. Wait – so this loss, an outright defeat to the legal rights of women- supposedly resulted in more women gaining their rights? This just did not make sense to me, especially in the ways in which I learned about her case. In the episode “Sex Appeal” from Radiolab’s podcast More Perfect, the episode casts Bradwell v. Illinois as the first “greatest hit…for the Court’s ridiculous distinction between the roles of men and women.” Therefore, I set out on my research with this simple question in mind: what did Bradwell V. Illinois do for the legal rights of women? I wanted to see the good and the bad. The victories that came or the setbacks that women experienced because of Bradwell’s challenege to the United States Supreme Court. 

First, I found that Myra Bradwell was not a lone activist within the legal realm. There were numerous other women also fighting for their rights to enter the legal profession and actually succeeded. Though Bradwell was one of a few women working their way into the courtroom, she was the first women to challenge the highest court in the country for her legal rights as a citizen. This bravery, that unfortunately ended in defeat, set a path for many other women to challenge for their own legal rights. Some of these cases also ended in a loss for the legal rights of women, but each loss empowered other women to fight for the empowerment of all women. For example, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg progressed in her legal career by arguing against gender discrimination that Myra Bradwell and others faced before her. This timeline is meant to show all the victories, failures, and inspiring women who achieved what Myra Bradwell was denied. As more and more women fight for our ever evolving legal rights, this timeline can be a continuation of those efforts. 

Timeline can be found here!


Primary Sources (Images/Documents/Videos in Timeline):

Secondary Sources: 

  • Cushman, Clare. 2011. Supreme Court Decisions and Women’s Rights : Milestones to Equality. 2nd ed. CQ Press
  • Gutgold, Nichola D. The Rhetoric of Supreme Court Women : From Obstacles to Options. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012.
  • “13 Pioneering Women in American Law – ABA Journal.” Accessed April 28, 2020.

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