The Indiana Supreme Court made “legal history” on June 14, 1893, when they ruled that Antoinette Dakin Leach could practice law in the state. State law at the time dictated that all those wishing to take the bar exam be “resident voters”. Leach was not registered to vote--no woman at that time could legally vote in an election. That was not to come until 1920.
Mike McCormick, who writes a column entitled “Historical Perspectives” for the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, noted in a 2008 work headlined “Bessie Eaglesfield first female lawyer in state” that 18 years prior to Leach being allowed to practice law, “Elizabeth Jane ‘Bessie’ Eaglesford was practicing law in Terre Haute”.
Indiana Tech’s new law school has provided information on this facet of history for our blog not only from McCormick’s column but also from 1990’s “A Tribute to the Nation's First Women Law Students” by Karen Tokarz, Washington University Law Review, Volume 68, Issue 1.
Bessie Eaglesford was 22 when Terre Haute attorney William Mack filed a motion on September 8, 1875 to admit her to the bar. Vigo Circuit Court Judge Chambers Y. Patterson found that she was “of good moral character, a voter and a resident of this state, and the Court, being advised, so admits said Bessie Eaglesfield.”
Three years prior, the United States Supreme Court had ruled against an Illinois woman who was seeking admission to the bar on the same grounds as Eaglesford. According to McCormick, “The milestone reveals the community’s progressive attitude as well as the principals, all conspicuous in state and local history.”
Eaglesfield studied law with Mack between studies at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1876—after she was admitted to the bar. In 1878, she was the first woman to be awarded a law degree from Michigan.
After marriage and the birth of her son, she operated a “fancy goods shop”, practiced law and piloted fruit packets on Lake Michigan. She died on June 24, 1940, just a few days shy of her 87th birthday.
Said McCormick, “A pilot on the Great lakes and one of the first 15 female lawyers in America, Eaglesfield was a trailblazer in two disciplines. Her pioneer experiences in the courts and on the waters deserve penetrating study.
“She cleared the path for women in Indiana to practice law. Antoinette Leach of Sullivan converted that passage into a concrete highway 18 years later.”
When Tokarz wrote her piece, the law department at Washington University in St. Louis was celebrating the 120th anniversary of the admission of Lemma Barkeloo and Phoebe Wilson Couzins to the law department. They were the first women admitted to the law school and are also believed to be the first women law students in the United States.
“Lemma Barkeloo and Phoebe Wilson Couzins were women of remarkable vision and conviction. In 1869, neither had known another woman law student or lawyer. Yet, each dreamed of attaining a legal education and entering the legal profession. Lacking role models or mentors, they were driven by an internal sense of entitlement and equality. Barkeloo became Missouri's first woman lawyer and the first woman in the United States to try a case in court. Couzins was the state's first woman law graduate and the country's first woman U.S. marshal. Each made historic contributions to the advancement of women in the legal profession and in the law.”
Barkeloo was born in Brooklyn NY in 1840. With the ability to sing well in several foreign languages and coming from a wealthy family, she studied music with the best. But upon inheriting a large sum of money, she turned to the law. She applied to Harvard and Columbia Law Schools in 1868, but was refused admission.
“She then sought acceptance from schools in the ‘West.’ She petitioned Dean Henry Hitchcock and the faculty of Washington University's law department, and received permission to join the 1869 entering class.”
Barkeloo chose not to complete law school and was denied in her petition to obtain an early degree. But she took and passed the Missouri bar exam in 1870, “becoming Missouri's first, and the country's second, woman lawyer. Barkeloo was preceded in her landmark accomplishment by Arabella "Belle" Mansfield, who was admitted to the Iowa bar in June 1869. As was typical of that era, Mansfield had not attended law school prior to her admittance to the bar.”
Barkeloo became the first female lawyer in America to try a case in court. She fell ill soon after beginning her law practice and died of typhoid fever on September 11, 1870, just six months after her law practice opened.
Phoebe Wilson Couzins was born in St. Louis within a year of Lemma Barkeloo. Her family was prominent in local politics and she became known in her hometown for her work in the suffragist movement. In 1868, she asked to be admitted to the law school at Washington University, which became the first law school in the country to accept qualified applicants regardless of gender.
By contrast “Columbia University did not admit women law students until 1929, Harvard not until 1950.”
Couzins completed the two-year degree program and was the first woman to graduate from Washington University’s law school and only the third woman to graduate from law school in the United States. She set up her law practice in downtown St. Louis, passed the Missouri bar and was admitted in 1871, giving her “the distinction of being only the third or fourth woman licensed to practice law in the United States…” She was the second woman admitted to the bar in Missouri and the first in Arkansas. She was admitted to the Utah bar in 1872 along with Georgia Snow, the daughter of Utah’s Attorney General. She also was admitted to the Kansas and Dakota Territory bar associations.
But women’s suffrage was Couzin’s main concern. After serving on the Western Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, she came to the belief that there would be fewer wars if women could vote. She helped to found the National Woman Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She became known for her oratory on the “issues of suffrage, temperance, and women’s rights”. She appeared before the Missouri legislature in 1869, “advocating passage of legislation granting women the right to vote”. The proposal was defeated by a vote of 89 to 5.
However, this Missouri appearance led to more in the west and her influence spread.
“She spoke on the platform at the Democratic National Convention on June 27, 1876, advocating women's rights. In 1882, President Chester Arthur considered Couzins for a seat on the Utah Territory governing commission. She failed to get that appointment, but in September 1887, President Grover Cleveland appointed her to succeed her father as U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Missouri. Couzins was the first woman in the country appointed to serve as a U.S. marshal, an appointment that drew public criticism. Couzins responded to this criticism in a letter to the editor of the Missouri Republican, stating that ‘a woman typifies justice and ... symbolizes law; therefore it does not appear so funny to empower women to execute the office of U.S. Marshal.’”
Couzins moved to Washington, D.C. in 1889 and tried her hand at writing, a venture that failed. She had very little income after her father’s death and accepted a position as the secretary of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1890. But she came into conflict with board chair Bertha H. Palmer and was removed from the board. She sued but lost.
“In the 1890s, Couzins inexplicably retreated from some of her earlier views on women's rights and the suffrage and temperance movements. She became a lobbyist for the liquor industry. Further, she asserted that ‘the great work for the majority of women is motherhood,’ and no longer advocated women working outside the home. In the most dramatic turnabout, she argued that ‘endow[ing women] with the ballot would be a mistake.’ One author suggests that Couzins, struggling to reconcile the roles of women as mothers and political activists, became ‘frustrated by the lethargy of the feminist movement after 1880.’”
Couzins began to spiral into a state of “serious mental and physical deterioration”. She “grew embittered at the new, young, wealthy members of the suffrage movement.” Couzins became confined to a wheel chair and sought financial assistance from anyone who would listen. Her frustration with progressive movements and Washington University grew and in 1907 “she demanded that she be allowed to speak at the thirty-eighth anniversary of the law school's commencement exercises”. Her request was denied.
“In 1912, she vehemently requested the privilege of sitting on the platform at the commencement, marking Washington University's sixtieth anniversary. Although she was permitted to attend the graduation ceremony, she was not allowed a place on the platform. Couzins' otherwise brilliant career had taken a sad and ironic twist. Friends and those who knew her history were surprised and saddened by the shift in Couzins' views. The woman who once had been described as ‘one of the most widely known women in America’ and affectionately referred to as ‘Colonel Couzins,’ died quietly in poverty in December 1913. Only six people attended her funeral. Couzins was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, with a U.S. marshal star pinned to her chest. In 1950, women lawyers of St. Louis and Kansas City erected a tombstone over Couzins' unmarked grave as a memorial of her historic career.”