Tag Archives: re-enactment

A historical re-enactment with a twist: Bradwell v. Illinois

I do like devoting posts to books and archival records as sources for legal history, and thus it was really by chance that I saw a notice on the website of the Yale Law School about the re-enactment of a historical case from 1873. When reading about the re-enactment and viewing the video recording of it my curiosity grew. One of the headings I used in a post this month was “Less is more?”. After that really long post I have decided to keep this new contribution rather short.

At the 2011 Judicial Conference of the Ninth Circuit, held from August 15 to 18, 2011, a number of lawyers re-enacted the case of Myra Bradwell versus the State of Illinois before the United States Supreme Court (83 U.S. 130 (1872)). Among the performers was Yale law professor Judith Resnik who pleaded the case of Myra Bradwell (1831-1894), a married lawyer who wanted in 1869 to be admitted to the bar in Illinois, but her request was denied. It took some time before her case was finally heard by the Supreme Court. The re-enactment was presided by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg. In 1873 Bradwell lost her case, but last month Judith Resnik pleading for Myra Bradwell convinced Justice Ginzburg and won her admission to the Illinois bar.

Women’s legal history in the United States

Until now I have only mentioned women’s legal history very briefly, but the few things noted in that earlier post helped me to get quickly more information about Myra Bradwell. The Women’s Legal History (WLH) project at Stanford Law School has a page with lots of online references about materials on Bradwell and literature about her. Thus I could link here to an online version of the case. The page on Bradwell at Stanford University brings a lot more than the brief notice in the online exhibit of the Columbia Law School library, The Rise of Women in the Legal Profession. In fact the WLH project is a model of its kind, but not a model you can easily follow. The combination of biographical matters, be it in an admittedly very concise but consistent way, with full references to documents and literature, makes many biographical websites a bit shallow and bleak.

One of the elements in Bradwell v. State of Illinois making this case still interesting is that it involves interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the constitution of the United States. Does denying a married woman the right to be admitted to the bar impair the “privileges and immunities” of a United States citizen? On April 15, 1873, the Supreme Court ruled that this was not “obnoxious to the charge of abridging any of the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States”. In 1890 the Illinois Supreme Court, acting on its own, finally allowed Myra Bradwell to practice law. Long before 1890 Bradwell had become a well-known lawyer as founder of the Chicago Legal News (1868).

I could easily continue reaping the fruits brought together at the WLH project and elsewhere, like the short notice in the online exhibit Outspoken: Chicago’s Free Speech Tradition of the Newberry Library, Chicago, but it is more interesting to read the case, to ponder the arguments used in the nineteenth century, to look at the video of the re-enactment and to consider the new arguments presented. Of course much more can be said about American women lawyers, but for today I leave it to you to start further research for example at the history section of the website of the American National Conference of Women Bar Associations.

A Dutch twist

For your convenience I will end here with more information about the other links on women’s history I wrote about earlier, giving this post, too, the customary Dutch twist. The International Institute for Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam has a fine links selection on women’s history. The IISH maintains the Virtual Library Women’s History, a gateway to women’s history, and ViVa Women’s History, an online current bibliography of women’s and gender history, both indispensable research tools. I noticed earlier on also the IntLawGrrls blog where Bradwell figured in 2009 in the On this Day sectionAletta, formerly known as the International Archive for the Women’s Movement, also based in Amsterdam, has an open access image database. The name Aletta comes from the first Dutch female physician Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929), a pioneer of women’s liberation. She married to the Dutch politician Carel Victor Gerritsen (1850-1905). The Gerritsen collection with early books on the history of the women’s movement has been digitized, but is accessible only at subscribing libraries and their card holders, and for card holders of the Aletta Institute. This enables you to use two other digital collections at the Aletta Institute as well.

All those who would like to know more about women’s legal history outside the United States should perhaps have a look at the program of next month’s conference in Chicago (October 13 and 14, 2011) with the theme Women’s Legal History: A Global Perspective.

A postscript

While searching for other matters an Italian website, Donne e diritti. Osservatorio di storiografica giuridica [Women and rights. An observatory of juridical historiography] came to my attention. It is a portal for women’s legal history with articles, sources in translation, detailed bibliographies, a calendar of events and a link selection with an international orientation.