Today in Feminist History: Legal Highs and Lows for Women Lawyers (May 11, 1886)

May 11, 1886: A victory in Pennsylvania and a setback in New York today in the continuing struggle of women in the field of law.

PHOTO: Carrie B. Kilgore

Carrie B. Kilgore, Pennsylvania’s first female lawyer, has been trying to win the right to practice before all of the Keystone State’s courts for over 12 years.

Today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accredited her as an attorney permitted to argue cases before it, and according to a new State law, this automatically entitles her to practice in all the State’s other courts as well.

Until now, she had only been able to practice in the Courts of Common Pleas of Delaware and Northampton Counties, and the Orphans’ Court of Philadelphia County, while the other Courts of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County had barred her solely because of her sex.

Unfortunately, the New York State Supreme Court is not as progressive as its neighbor. Kate Stoneman’s attempt to be admitted to the bar was rejected because, in the opinion of Justice Landon, writing for the majority:

“The statute, Code of Civil Procedure Section 56, prescribes regulations and provides for rules to be observed in the case of ‘a male citizen of the State, of full age, hereafter applying to be admitted to practice as an attorney in the courts of record of this State.’ The expression ‘male citizen’ implies the legislative exclusion of the female citizen from this office.”

Justice Landon then noted that while those who originally drafted the statute in 1846 had probably used the word “male” simply “as a matter of course,” without considering the possibility that a woman might ever want to practice law, those who revised the statute in 1871 and 1876 would have considered—and clearly rejected—such a possibility. They would have been aware of Iowa admitting Arabella Mansfield to the bar in 1869, so their choice to retain the word “male” was meant to preclude women from being permitted to practice law in New York State.

Stoneman and her supporters are disappointed in the ruling, but are by no means ready to give up the fight. In fact, they have now intensified their efforts, begun in January, to have the law changed by the State legislature, so hopefully this is just a temporary setback. 


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.