A search through Newspapers.com and Genealogybank.com reveals that women began forming “women law firms” from quite an early date:
1871, Miss Mary Wattle & Mrs. Helen Comb formed a woman’s law firm in Kansas, and, in 1880, Miss Frederika Perry and Miss Ellen Martin formed the “only ladies’ law firm in Chicago.” New Orleans Item, 28 November 1880.
One of the newspapers announcing the formation of Wattle & Comb wondered, “Kansas has a female law firm — Miss Mary Wattle and Mrs. Helen Comb being the ingredients. What’ll become of us if this sort of thing gets to be fashionable?” Austin Weekly Statesman, 1 August 1871.
In 1881, according to the Hancock Democrat, “There [were] one hundred and forty women law firms in the United States.” I’m not clear on the meaning of “women law firms” in that quote. Flash: I just found a story that conveyed a woman in solo practice was considered a “woman” or “women law firm.” That makes much more sense of the “one hundred for women law firms.” For the rest of this post, I refer only to women firms of more than one woman.
In November of 1905, the Albuquerque Citizen reported that “New York has its frist [sic] female law firm.” “A full fledged lady firm appeared in court this week . . . The firm’s name is Ashley, Pope & Doty — that is, Misses Jessie Ashley, Elizabeth S. Pope, and Madeline Z. Doty.”
In 1912, Miss Anna Donahue and Miss Tiera Farrow formed Kansas City’s first exclusively women’s law firm.
One year later, the Lima News reported that, in Chicago, “Katherine S. Clark, Phillis M. Kelly and Mary A. Sellers form[ed] the first all-women law firm in the country. They’re all brunettes.” 3 October 1913.
According to the Indianapolis Star, on March 1, 1914, Miss Georgia Harrington and Miss Charline Hinkle “announced they probably will establish a law firm of their own, which it is believed will be the first women law firm in the country.”
A headline in the Washington Post, in 1917, trumpeted, “First Women’s Law Firm in District; Just Like Men’s Save for Flowers.” Miss R. L. Halpenny and Miss Lucile Compton were the members of the women’s law firm. The writer of the article visited the firm and found “just one thing to distinguish [the office] from the office of a man’s law firm, and that was a bouquet of flowers on a tabouret between the desks of the firm’s members.” Miss Compton told the reporter, “Neither of us is a militant suffragist. We just feel as if we are competent to practice law . . . ” 22 February 1917.
Two women formed the first woman law firm in Macon, Georgia, in February of 1921. “In announcing the partnership, Mrs. Napier said she realized they have a long, hard road to travel, but that they both love the law . . . . ‘The lawyers, and especially the judges, have been lovely to us,’ said Mrs. Napier, ‘and have volunteered to co-operate with us in every way.’ Mrs. Napier will handle the court cases and Miss Hardin will look after the office work.” The Atlantic Constitution, 12 February 1921.
Milwaukee, in 1921, was the home of the first woman’s law firm in Wisconsin. “A dream of girlhood days came true . . . when Geraldine V. McMullen and Rose Horwitz” formed their firm. “The shingle, McMullen & Horwitz, will announce that Milwaukee’s fair sex will have women champions.” The Capital Times, 8 March 1921.
In early 1933, in Ohio, eight women lawyers “who got tired of having men for bosses banded together . . . [and] hung out a shingle of their own.” Evening Independent, 19 January 1933. They expected to have an advantage over firms of male attorneys — “Some women, particularly those with domestic difficulties, like to take their troubles to women.” Ironwood Daily Globe, 19 January 1933.
A one-line post in the Charleston Daily Mail informed readers that “An all-woman law firm has organized in Boston to handle cases for members of their sex.” 22 February 1933.
Again in 1933, three young women attorneys formed a woman’s firm, Seare, Meagher & Seare, after graduating from the University of Utah law school. Salt Lake Tribune, 9 February 1933.
Several newspapers, in April 1937, displayed a large photo with the headline, “The Coast’s All-Women Law Firm,” and the caption, “Boasting they comprise the first all-women law firm on the Pacific Coast, these three Los Angeles girls have organized a partnership that they used to dream about while they were in law school.” The three lawyers are “all set as a unit to fight the world’s battles.”
That same year, the Pampa Daily News included a seemingly challenging statement, “Modern Portias are banding to form wholly feminine law firms. We’ve been in courtrooms of many states, but we still look forward to seeing a firm like that tangle with one of our hard-hitting male partnerships.” 23 June 1933.
1937 and then in 1944, newspapers reported on “women’s law firms” in Kansas City and Baltimore. According to the Daily Courier, Sep. 14, 1937, “What is believed to be the first women’s law firm opened here . . . .” The all-woman law firm in Baltimore, reputed to be the first in Maryland, said that “most of its clients are men.” Rushville Republican, 7 July 1944. “The firm explains that it specializes in domestic cases, and although many of the men’s wives ‘don’t understand them,’ they seem to think ‘only a woman lawyer can understand how they are misunderstood.'”
From the turn of the twentieth century, year after year, women lawyers established “feminine” law firms. I wonder what happened to them and how the members of the firms fared in the legal world of those times.