Bar None: 125 Years of Women Lawyers in Illinois

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In 1870 while Bradwell's case was pending before the United States Supreme Court, Alta Hulett from Rockford and Ada Kepley from Effingham both sought admission to the Illinois bar. Kepley had recently graduated from the first University of Chicago Law School (now Northwestern University School of Law), the first woman law school graduate in the country. Both were refused admission because of their sex. Inspired by the recent advances in legislation that allowed women in Illinois to own their wages, Hulett resolved to change the law. With the assistance of five other trained legal minds, Myra and James Bradwell, Ada and Henry Kepley and Hulett's mentor, William Lathrop, Hulett drafted a bill that prohibited sex as a bar to any occupation or profession. Hulett lobbied the legislature and delivered her speech "Justice versus the Supreme Court" throughout the state winning support for her cause. On March 22, 1872, the Illinois legislature passed her bill enacting the first anti-sex-discrimination law in the country. With the governor's signature, Hulett exclaimed she would never again know such happiness.

Alta Hulett was required to take a second bar examination, which she passed with the highest score in her class. On June 6, 1873, two days after her nineteenth birthday, Hulett was admitted as the first woman lawyer in Illinois. She then promptly opened a law office on LaSalle Street in the heart of the lawyers' district in downtown Chicago and engaged in a brilliant career. Tragically she died in 1877 from a hereditary heart disease, but her accomplishments were so outstanding that the all male Chicago Bar Association held a memorial service in her honor and passed a resolution lauding her ability as an attorney.

Photo Spotlight

Header Photo: view
Reproduction of a photograph. Alta May Hulett (1854-1877), n.d.
Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society


Reproduction of a cabinet card. Judge James B. Bradwell, n.d.
Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society


Enrolled copy of the Public Laws of Illinois 578, March 22, 1872: Occupations, To Secure All Persons Freedom In Selection Of Occupation.
Courtesy of the Illinois State Archives


Photograph. Henry B. (seated at far left) and Ada Miser Kepley (standing at far left), with unidentified family members, n.d.
Courtesy of the Mabel M. Broom Collection

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