We all know the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the intrepid former ACLU lawyer who blazed a trail for gender equity all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. She advocated for equal treatment of all before the highest court in the land and went on to become the second female Supreme Court justice, all while living her feminist values as a working mother and devoted partner to her husband Marty.
But how many other trailblazing female attorneys can you name? The history of the law is rife with inspiring women who overcame considerable obstacles to fight for the rights of others. Looking for a new hero? Let me share three of mine.
Myra Bradwell was the first woman to attempt to gain admission to the Illinois bar in the 1870s. She passed the state bar exam and applied for admission. Yet the Illinois State Supreme Court denied her application, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their denial over her 14th Amendment claim of discrimination. Nonetheless, she was an advocate for women’s suffrage and property rights, fighting for legislation that gave women control of their earnings and property. When the Illinois legislature recognized the error of their ways and opened professions to women, Bradwell was admitted to both the United States Supreme Court and the Illinois Supreme Court in the early 1890s, becoming the first woman attorney in Illinois shortly before her death.
Of course, the ACLU had its share of inspiring women at its inception. Crystal Eastman was one of the co-founders of the ACLU more than 100 years ago. She gained a reputation as a prominent labor advocate, publicizing terrible labor conditions and working as an investigating attorney for the United States Commission on Industrial Relations. In 1917, she and two men established the National Civil Liberties Bureau, which would eventually become the American Civil Liberties Union, to protect the rights of World War I dissenters. She also joined the fight for women’s suffrage and co-authored the first Equal Rights Amendment in 1923.
The advances made by Bradwell and Eastman accrued primarily to white women. Pauli Murray sought to change that. Murray was a prominent civil rights lawyer who, over the course of her career, inspired Thurgood Marshall and RBG herself. She was a leading force in determining the strategy that would eventually overthrow segregation laws, and she applied the successes of that movement to figure out how to challenge laws that discriminate on the basis of sex. She was also at the forefront of what we now consider intersectional feminism, focusing much of her work on ensuring black women remained part of the movements for both racial and gender equity. She served on the ACLU’s Board of Directors and went on to co-found the National Organization for Women and become the first black woman Episcopal priest.
Today, there are countless attorneys following in these brave women’s footsteps. As The Secular Society Women’s Rights Advocacy Counsel, I’m proud to continue their work on behalf of women throughout the Commonwealth. From fighting sex-based discrimination from small employers or in male-dominated industries, advocating for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, or calling for better treatment of women in the criminal justice system, we still have a lot of work to do. Let’s keep making history.