Bradwell v. Illinois

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16 Wall. (83 U.S.) 130 (1873), argued 18 Jan. 1873, decided 15 Apr. 1873 by vote of 8 to 1; Miller for the Court, Bradley, Field, and Swayne concurring, Chase in dissent. Myra Bradwell (1831–1894), who had studied law with her attorney husband, James B. Bradwell, founded and published the Chicago Legal News, the leading midwestern legal publication. An Illinois statute provided that any adult “person,” of good character and having the requisite training, was eligible for admission to the bar. The Illinois Supreme Court denied her admission, however, because she was a woman. Bradwell then sought a writ of error from the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that her right to practice law was one of the privileges protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court's majority upheld the action of the Illinois court on the grounds that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, having been given its first (and extremely restrictive) interpretation only the day before in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), did not embrace the right to practice a profession. Bradwell v. Illinois thus confirmed the narrow view of the clause that has characterized the Court's approach to it ever since. But the decision is best remembered for dicta in Justice Joseph P. Bradley's concurrence. He stated: “The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator” (p. 141). It was not until almost one hundred years later that the Court began to use the Fourteenth Amendment to overturn sex discriminatory state laws, and then it used the “equal protection” clause of that amendment rather than the “privileges and immunities” clause (Reed v. Reed, 1971).

Nancy S. Erickson

Subjects: Law.

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