In the spring of 1882, Mary Hall applied to the Hartford County Bar to be admitted as an attorney. Hall had completed four years of study with the Honorable John Hooker, clerk of the Supreme Court of Errors and husband of Isabella Beecher Hooker, and had passed the bar examination. As Hall was the first woman in Connecticut to apply for admission to the bar, one question stood in her way: did Connecticut allow women to practice law?
Hall’s admission depended on the Connecticut Supreme Court’s answer to that question. The General Statutes at the time stated that the Superior Court “may admit as attorneys such persons as are qualified therefor agreeably to the rules established by judges of said court.” This statute had been in existence, with some changes, since 1720.
The argument against Hall’s admission focused on the intent of the legislation as it was originally passed: legislators in 1720, in setting forth qualifications for attorneys, could not have contemplated that women would ever seek admission to the bar. Consequently, “persons” could only have referred to men.
The Court rejected this argument, noting that public opinion on a topic may change completely although statutory language remains the same. Further, the statute had been reaffirmed by its inclusion in the 1875 statutory revision without any amendment limiting the admission of women. Since, the court reasoned, women had entered the profession of law and other professional and public occupations by 1875, and the legislature did not amend the statute, “persons” must include women.
Although Hall was not the first woman in the United States to be admitted to the bar, the decision about her application was the first judicial decision that permitted women to practice law.
The New York Times, in reporting on the Hall case, seemingly applauded the Court’s decision, but went on to doubt that it would result in any real rise in women in the profession:
“Some…will allow sentimental considerations to incline them toward Miss Hall and her future learned sisters, if she has any, and still others will be moved by curiosity in that direction, just as men sometimes look into a convex distorting mirror for no reason on earth save that the thing is odd…Fame and fortune, therefore, are out of the question for women lawyers, for the percentage of chances against their being employed in important cases, where they could win in important cases, where they could win the one by their talents and the other by their success, is so great as to heavily handicap them in the struggle with their learned brothers, and we may advance, without fear of dispute, probably, the broad general truth that in this race the handicaps, if there are any, ought to be on the other side.”
The New York Times was soon proven wrong, as the number of women lawyers in Connecticut began to slowly grow. In 1901, Susan O’Neill was the first woman to argue before the Connecticut Supreme Court. By the 1920s, there were several women practicing law in Connecticut. In 1976, about 450 of the Connecticut Bar Association’s 6,000 members were women. Today, women comprise nearly fifty percent of law school classes, and are over a third of admitted lawyers. In Connecticut, it all began with Mary Hall.
American Bar Association, A Current Glance at Women in the Law, Feb. 2013, available here.
Matthew G. Berger, Mary Hall: The Decision and the Lawyer, 79 Conn. B.J. 29 (2005)
Virginia G. Drachman, Sisters In Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History, Harvard University Press, 1998
Pan Luecke, More Women Entering Law, A Field Steeped In Masculine Tradition, Hartford Courant, Feb. 25, 1979, p. 1E
Woman Lawyer Defends the “Flapper,” Hartford Courant, May 21, 1922, p. SM8
In re Hall, 50 Conn. 131 (1882)
Miss Attorney Hall, New York Times, Sept. 27, 1882, p. 4.
Women at the Connecticut Bar: The Right of a Woman to be Admitted to Practice to be Tested, Hartford Courant, Apr. 29, 1882, p. 5.
Photo courtesy of the Richmond Memorial Library