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The Supreme Courts Declares Women “Unfit for Civil Life”

In 1869, Myra Bradwell sought to join the Illinois bar so that she could practice law. She had already studied law and began publishing Chicago Legal News, a weekly newspaper about court cases and laws around the nation. Although she passed the tests to become a lawyer, the Illinois State Supreme Court rejected her, saying she was a married woman and therefore not a fully free agent. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1873.

The claim of the plaintiff, who is a married woman, to be admitted to practice as an attorney…is based upon the supposed right of every person, man or woman, to engage in any lawful employment for a livelihood… 

The claim that, under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which declares that no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens…assumes that it is one of the privileges and immunities of women as citizens to engage in any and every profession, occupation or employment in civil life. 

It certainly cannot be affirmed, as a historical fact, that this has ever been established as one of the fundamental privileges and immunities of the sex. On the contrary, the civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. 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 harmony [and interests of] the family…is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband… [A] married woman is incapable, without her husband’s consent, of making contracts which shall be binding on her or him. This very incapacity was one circumstance which the supreme court of Illinois deemed important in rendering a married woman incompetent to perform the duties and trusts that belong to the office of an attorney… 

It is true that many woman are unmarried and not affected by any of [these issues], but these are exceptions to the general rule. The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things, and cannot be based upon exceptional cases.

Source | U.S. Supreme Court, Bradwell vs. Illinois, 1873; in Linda K. Kerber and Jane De Hart Matthews, Women’s America; Refocusing the Past (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).
Creator | U.S. Supreme Court
Item Type | Laws/Court Cases
Cite This document | U.S. Supreme Court, “The Supreme Courts Declares Women “Unfit for Civil Life”,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 22, 2023,



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