5.3.3. The Midwest, 1865-1900: The Women's Rights Revolution


  • 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 the Midwest and across the nation in the late 1860s, inspired in part by Reconstruction-era expansion of black civil rights. 
  • Expanding women’s property rights became a game of cat’s-paw between legislatures and courts in many Midwestern states:  in many cases courts interpreted new rights laws narrowly and legislatures then enacted laws expanding rights again.  Midwestern legislators declined to give women full suffrage but allowed them to vote for school-related offices because they believed education was closely related to the Victorian-era ideal of women as keepers of home and children.
  • Midwestern states were among the first to admit women to the bar.  Arabella Babb Mansfield of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa became the first woman lawyer in the United States in 1869; by the end of the 1870s all other Midwestern states except Indiana allowed women to practice law. 

 

Married women allowed to:

 

Control their own wages

Make wills and bequeath their property

Vote for school offices

Practice law

Ohio

1871

1840

1891

1873

Indiana

1879

1859

--

1893

Illinois

1869

1872

1891

1872

Michigan

--

1850

1867

1871

Wisconsin

1872

--

1884

1875

Iowa

1870

--

--

1869

Minnesota

1860 (in case of separation)

1869

1875

1877


Key women's rights cases:

In re Bradwell – Illinois, 1869 (55 Ill. 535); In re Goodell Wisconsin, 1875 (39 Wis. 232); In re Petition of Leach Indiana, 1893 (34 N.E. 641); Gougar v. TimberlakeIndiana, 1897 (46 N.E. 339); Attorney General v. Abbott Michigan, 1899 (80 N.W. 372)

  • In 1869, the Illinois supreme court refused to admit Myra Bradwell of Chicago, the state’s first woman applicant, to the bar, but only because it concluded that women could not practice effectively because of the legal disabilities the common law continued to impose.  For example, the state’s married women’s property act did not given women the right to contract in their own name, thus they could not make binding commitments to clients and their legal opponents.  The Illinois legislature overrode the court’s decision three years later.   
  • Chief Justice Edward Ryan of the Wisconsin supreme court was not so mild:  in 1875 he refused to admit Lavinia Goodell of Janesville and offered a ringing defense of the Victorian view of women’s place.   Two years later the Wisconsin legislature overrode Ryan’s decision.  Indiana’s legislature was slower to act, but in 1893 the Indiana supreme court admitted Antoinette Leach of Sullivan to the bar, holding in broad language that women had a fundamental right to work in any profession. 
  • In 1898 the voters of Ogemaw County, Michigan elected Merrie Abbott as their district attorney – another first for American women.  Unfortunately, the victory was short-lived:  Michigan’s the supreme court held that under the common law, only those qualified to vote could do so, and Abbott did not qualify. 


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Arabella Mansfield (courtesy Wikipedia)



Womens' suffrage headquarters, Cleveland, Ohio, 1912 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)









“While those theories which are popularly known as “woman’s rights” cannot be expected to meet with a very cordial acceptance among the members of a profession, which, more than any other, inclines its followers, if not to stand immovable upon the ancient ways, at least to make no hot haste in measures of reform, still, all right minded men must gladly see new spheres of action opened to woman, and greater inducements offered her to seek the highest and widest culture.” (542) 

-       Justice Charles Lawrence, in In re Bradwell

 

“The law of nature destines and qualifies the female sex for the bearing and nurture of the children of our race and for the custody of the homes of the world … And all life-long callings …  inconsistent with these radical and sacred duties of their sex, as I the profession of law, are departures from the order of nature.”

-Chief Justice Edward Ryan, in In re Goodell