Guest post: Ada Kepley, women’s education and the law

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Historical Spotlight: Ada Kepley, the First Female Law School Graduate

It’s difficult to imagine a time when women couldn’t become lawyers in the U.S. However, in the 1870s, when Ada Kepley hoped to become a lawyer, it was unheard of for women to practice law. Kepley was the first woman in our country to graduate from law school. When Kepley graduated from Union College of Law in 1870, the state of Illinois informed her that women were not legally allowed in the learned professions. It wasn’t until 1873 that the laws barring women from practicing law were overturned.

According to the Illinois Bar Journal, Ada Kepley and two other Illinois women, Myra Bradwell and Alta Hulett, played critical roles in opening up the doors to the law profession for women. All three women applied for the Illinois bar in the 1870s and actively spoke out against discriminatory practices in the legal field. It was eighteen-year-old Alta Hulett who finally convinced the Illinois Legislature to permit women to practice law, through persistent and ardent lobbying. Kepley and Bradwell were then allowed to take the bar exam and become practicing lawyers.

Kepley, Bradwell, and Hulett were, in part, able to make the strides they did in the Illinois legal field with the help of Henry B. Kepley, Ada Kepley’s beloved husband. Mr. Kepley was a lawyer in Effingham who ardently encouraged Ada Kepley to pursue law. When Kepley was told she couldn’t become a lawyer, Henry B. Kepley drafted a bill that would outlaw discrimination based on gender in the learned professions in Illinois. It was the bill that Henry B. Kepley drafted that would eventually become a law in 1872, after Alta Hulett’s efforts came to fruition.

As Ada Kepley celebrated the victory of being able to practice law, she had other pressing matters on her mind as well. The women’s suffrage movement and temperance movement became particularly important to Kepley. She joined forces with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard to rally and lobby for equal voting rights for women. Additionally, she helped found an organization called Band of Hope, which aimed to educate the young adult population about the perils of alcohol abuse.

Kepley’s vocal support of prohibition legislation got her into some trouble in her local Effingham, Illinois community. In fact, according to Marilyn Willison, author of The Self-Empowered Woman, Kepley was beaten by two different liquor enthusiasts, and the son of a liquor dealer actually tried to shoot her (but missed). These harrowing events didn’t stop her from speaking out in favor of temperance, however. Kepley remained a passionate supporter of making alcohol illegal for all of her adult life.

Ada Kepley’s legal career was made possible mostly because her beloved husband, Henry Kepley, was also a lawyer. Ms. Kepley was able to join her husband’s practice and work for Effingham clients alongside him. At the turn of the 20th century, it would have been quite difficult for a woman to practice law without some sort of support from a man. Ada Kepley may not have achieved the goals of equality she longed for in her lifetime, but she certainly paved the way for future women to achieve those goals.

Katheryn Rivas is a freelance writer and professional blogger who frequently contributes to and other education sites. If you have any comments or questions, drop Katheryn a line at Please see our Editorial Policy on guest posts for the Educating Women blog

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