Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ada Kepley: A Lawyer Who Couldn't Practice Law

Ada Miser Kepley (earned a law degree, 30 June 1870)


On this day in 1870, Ada Miser Kepley (b. 1847) earned her bachelor of laws degree from Union College of Law (now Northwestern University), becoming the first woman in the United States to receive a law degree. 
Ada Miser Kepley,
1893

But, while she could work as a legal assistant for her husband, Henry B. Kepley, who had his own law practice, she could not practice law in the state of Illinois, which denied women a law license.

An appeal to the Supreme Court of Illinois was denied, meaning that if there was to be a remedy, it was not going to be judicial but legislative. Although Henry Kepley helped to change the law, and the ban against women was lifted in 1872, Kepley did not apply for a license to practice until 1881.

In the mean time, she played an active role in the temperance movement and ran for Attorney General of the state of Illinois in 1881. She was also involved in the suffrage movement, leaving the Prohibition Party when it removed its support for women's suffrage:  
I work as hard as a man . . . I earn money like a man. I bear the burdens of community like a man. I am robbed as a woman! I have no voice in anything or in saying how my money, which I have earned, shall be spent. The men of Illinois and the United States run their hands into my pockets, take out my hard earned money, and say impertinently, "What are you going to do about it, you can't help yourself."
(Doesn't this quotation sound as if it could be spoken today? On women and the pay gap, click here. On women and the lack of elective representation, click here. On still no Equal Rights Amendment, click here.)

In 1892, Kepley was ordained as a Unitarian minister, and she preached for twenty years at The Pulpit, formerly a Methodist church, which she and her husband purchased. 

After her husband's death in 1906, Ada Miser Kepley moved to the Kepley family's farm. Although she tried to support herself by farming and by writing, she lost the farm. She died in poverty, a charity case at St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital (Effingham, Illinois) in 1925.

The work that Kepley published in an effort to support herself--an autobiography, A Farm Philosopher: A Love Story, and a collection of poems and songs, The Effingham Town and Country Song Book: the First Town and Country Song Book in the World--is available in a variety of print-on-demand formats. You can read A Farm Philosopher online at the Internet Archive. Her earlier work, a seven-page pamphlet, The Ways to Teach Temperance (1883), seems to be unavailable in print or online.

Although there are a few brief references to Ada Kepley in Jill Norgren's Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America's First Women Lawyers and in Mary Jane Mossman's The First Women Lawyers: A Comparative Study of Gender, Law and the Legal Professionsthe fact that she did not practice law seems to have kept her out of these histories--and Jane Friedman's America's First Woman Lawyer is about Myra Bradwell, not Ada Miser Kepley. A good biographical essay by Judy Rosella Edwards, from the Dictionary of the Unitarian and Universalist Biography  is posted at Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage.