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Belle Babb Mansfield Becomes the First Woman Lawyer in the United States



While the records are scarce and incomplete, it is generally agreed that "[t]he first woman lawyer in America, Margaret Brent, arrived in the colonies in 1638"[1]. After her, there is no documented case of a woman being admitted to the bar until 1869, when Belle Babb Mansfield, at the age of thirty-two, passed the Chicago bar exam and became officially recognized as the first woman lawyer in the United States. Two months later, Myra Colby Bradwell passed the same exam. However, in Bradwell’s case, she was not the first lawyer in the state of Illinois as she was denied her license. It would be an eighteen-year old girl by the name of Alta H. Hulett who would, in 1872, get her own bill passed by the legislature and would earn that envied title.

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Some women who fought to gain admission in other states were Clara Foltz who became California’s first practicing attorney in 1878, and Mary Leonard, who in 1885 became Oregon’s first lawyer. Obviously, there were many more that claimed to be the first woman lawyer of their state. There were also a few more, such as Belva Lockwood, who was the first woman to enter the federal courts of their state.

Although these women are only a few representatives, they were some of the original pioneers who allowed the rest of the women in the United States of America the opportunity to practice law within a male-dominated community. These pioneers all battled with the state-by-state struggle to gain admission into their own bars. These women faced great opposition, not only from their male professors, judges, and employers, but even from the women they sought to free from their oppression. Thus, the progress that these women made both within the legal profession, and within the legislative spheres of power, remain an impressive feat. Not only did they give other women the opportunity to enter the legal profession, but the first female lawyers gave all women in the United States the legislation and court precedents which ensured every woman’s equality.


Morello, Karen Berger. The Invisible Bar. Random House: New York. P. 3. 1986.

Edited, Researched and Written by:
Julia Kyte
December 17, 1999

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