OPINION: Myra Bradwell, well, you did it for us

Today when we celebrate International Women’s Day , I can see numerous women lawyers at the Supreme Court . I could also see Justice Ms. Bhanumathi sitting in the Constitution Bench which was hearing the matter pertaining to Reservation and Article 14 of the Constitution of India. Today, among other things the Supreme Court also upheld the right of lady in choosing her partner irrespective of the religious faiths of her parents. If you were at the Kerala High Court you could have witnessed 5 lady Judges along with numerous law officers , interpreting law and deciding the fate of numerous citizens . Whether the illustration is the appearance of Ms.Vibha Datta Makhija, Senior Advocate before Court No.11 where Justice Goel was sitting with Justice Nariman and Justice U.U.Lalit ( all were lawyers of the Supreme Court ) , or the wait in anticipation by Senior Advocate Meenakshi Arora for her turn, the profession has now become ladies friendly compared to the early days. But all was not well with the male dominated society when it came to practicing law by ladies. It had to be a battle by Mrs. Myra Bradwell to win the ladies the right to practice as a lawyer.

Myra Bradwell Episode

Historically the right to engage in every profession has not been one of the established fundamental privileges and immunities of the sex. The law has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. The harmony of interests and views that belong to the family institution is repugnant to the idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from her husband. Earlier, women had no legal existence, and were incapable of making binding contracts without her husband’s consent. This played heavily in the Supreme Court of Illinois’ decision. The paramount destiny of women is to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother.

The statute of Illinois on the subject of admissions to the bar, enacts that no person shall be permitted to practice as an attorney or counsellor-at-law, or to commence, conduct, or defend any action, suit, or complaint, in which he is not a party concerned, in any court of record within the State, either by using or subscribing his own name or the name of any other person, without having previously obtained a license for that purpose from some two of the justices of the Supreme Court, which license shall constitute the person receiving the same an attorney and counsellor- at-law, and shall authorize him to appear in all the courts of record within the State, and there to practice as an attorney and counsellor-at- law, according to the laws and customs thereof.

After passing the bar exam in 1869, she was restrained from entry to bar as the Illinois supreme court thought married women could not enter in to contract , due to doctrine of coverture. In an 8:1 ruling even the US Supreme Court denied her right to practice even by the equality clause, the 14th amendment. She continued her pursuit while working with the Chicago legal news and ultimately in 1890 the Supreme Court reconsidered the application and allowed it with retrospective effect making her the first women lawyer.

This extract from the dissenting opinion of the Chief Justice, in the first Judgment is worth a read:

“There may be cases in which a client’s rights can only be rescued by an exercise of the rough qualities possessed by men. There are many causes in which the silver voice of woman would accomplish more than the severity and sternness of man could achieve. Of a bar composed of men and women of equal integrity and learning, women might be more or less frequently retained, as the taste or judgment of clients might dictate. But the broad shield of the Constitution is over them all, and protects each in that measure of success which his or her individual merits may secure.”

Today we have the uncertain wait of the first Lady Advocate to be directly elevated to the Supreme Court from the bar. But that wait, though is strenuous, may end soon. Many a times I have found women capable of multitasking better equipped as lawyers than men who posses those rough qualities alone when compared to the silver voice of women. The profession has certainly opened up for all , and more than the women , the men and the profession and the institution would ever remain highly thankful and indebted to the struggle which Mrs. Myra Bradwell had under went for all of us.

Renjith Marar is an Advocate practicing in the Supreme Court of India. Views expressed are personal. 

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