1.4.2. New England (1865-1900): The Women's Rights Revolution Continues

After married women gained the right to control their own property, they steadily pushed for additional political and economic rights.  The women’s suffrage movement arose in New England and across the nation in the late 1860s, inspired in part by Reconstruction-era expansion of black civil rights.  Many American states gave women the limited right to vote in school elections in the late 1800s, decades before women were granted an unconditional right to vote, and most New England states followed suit.  Because the region placed a high value on education and striving for success, New England women pushed early for the right to practice professions such as medicine and law which had long been denied them; and once the issue was raised, legislatures were quick to accommodate them.

Robinson’s Case – Massachusetts, 1881 (131 Mass.  376); In re Hall – Connecticut, 1882 (50 Conn. 131); In re Ricker – New Hampshire, 1890 (29 A. 559)

  •  Women first applied for admission to the bar in several Midwestern states in the 1870s.  Courts there took one of two approaches:  they either concluded they had inherent power to admit women in the absence of any statute to the contrary or, conversely, that they would not admit women unless the legislature authorized it.  New Hampshire took the first approach; Connecticut’s supreme court took an unusually liberal view of a state statute which allowed “qualified” persons to practice law; it conceded the legislature had not had women in mind as potentially “qualified” persons, but noted that times had changed and that because women were now qualified to perform other semi-official functions, they were qualified to practice law as well. 
  • Massachusetts declined to take such a liberal approach toward Lelia Robinson; Robinson responded by persuading the legislature to authorize women to practice law, and she later helped Marilla Ricker become the first woman to gain admission to the New Hampshire bar.  Other New England legislatures authorized women to practice law before test cases were brought in their states.

Married women allowed to:

Control their own wages   
Make wills and bequeath their property
Vote for school offices
Practice law

New Hampshire



Rhode Island


Lelia Robinson - courtesy Wikipedia