Rebels at the Bar

The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers

286 pages

May, 2016

ISBN: 9781479835522



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Jill Norgren is Professor Emerita of Political Science at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, The City University of New York. She is the author of several books, including Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America’s First Women Lawyers (NYU, 2013), and Belva Lockwood: The Women Who Would Be President (NYU, 2007). 

All books by Jill Norgren

An engaging history of women's rights and the legal profession in the nineteenth century
Long before Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg earned their positions on the Supreme Court, they were preceded in their goal of legal excellence by several intrepid trailblazers.  In Rebels at the Bar, prize-winning legal historian Jill Norgren recounts the life stories of a small group of nineteenth century women who were among the first female attorneys in the United States. Beginning in the late 1860s, these determined rebels pursued the radical ambition of entering the then all-male profession of law. They were motivated by a love of learning. They believed in fair play and equal opportunity. They desired recognition as professionals and the ability to earn a good living.                       
Through a biographical approach, Norgren presents the common struggles of eight women first to train and to qualify as attorneys, then to practice their hard-won professional privilege. Their story is one of nerve, frustration, and courage. This first generation practiced civil and criminal law, solo and in partnership. The women wrote extensively and lobbied on the major issues of the day, but the professional opportunities open to them had limits. They never had the opportunity to wear the black robes of a judge. They were refused entry into the lucrative practices of corporate and railroad law. Although male lawyers filled legislatures and the Foreign Service, presidents refused to appoint these early women lawyers to diplomatic offices and the public refused to elect them to legislatures.                   
Rebels at the Bar expands our understanding of both women’s rights and the history of the legal profession in the nineteenth century. It focuses on the female renegades who trained in law and then, like men, fought considerable odds to create successful professional lives. In this engaging and beautifully written book, Norgren shares her subjects’ faith in the art of the possible. In so doing, she ensures their place in history.    


  • "In this pathbreaking account, Rebels at the Bar enlarges our understanding of women’s entrance to the legal profession. With telling detail and lively prose, Jill Norgren profiles the courage, resilience, and challenges of America’s first women lawyers. This is a compelling story and essential reading for anyone interested in women’s role in legal history."

    —Deborah L. Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, Stanford Law School

  • "I read these stories of the first generation of women lawyers with awe and gratitude. We are all in their debt—and in Jill Norgren's, too, for recovering this forgotten history."

    —Linda Greenhouse, Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Joseph M. Goldstein Senior Fellow, Yale Law School

  • "Bold, brave women with musical old-fashioned names—Myra, Clara, Belva, Lelia, Lavinia—are among the subjects of this lively and readable account of the first women lawyers. Some were famous in their times, but all were forgotten until recently when female attorneys started seeking their history, and found a Boswell in Jill Norgren."

    —Barbara Babcock, Judge John Crown Professor of Law, Emerita, Stanford Law School

  • "Intriguing and enriching, Norgren’s book on the first generation of women lawyers in America offers an in-depth look at the careers of eight notable women...this intersection of legal and feminist history is unquestionably inspiring."

    —, Publishers Weekly

  • "Even after practicing law for 30 years I found this book fascinating."

    —Joan M. Burda, NY Journal of Books

  • "Shedding light on a little-known chapter of American history and the women who blazed the trail for today's attorneys, this will be most enjoyed by students of history, women's studies, and law, along with interested general readers."

    —, Library Journal

  • "I have read Ms. Norgren's book with profound gratitude. Being reminded of the brave, intelligent, controversial women who have broke through many barriers a good hundred years before the 1950's has been a fascinating experience."

    —, Senior Women Web

  • "engaging and beautifully written book"

    —, Ms. JD Book Series

  •  "[A] conscientious history of the country’s first female lawyers...The women who went first — whose stories Norgren so capably tells — matter deeply to the ones who came after."

    —Emily Bazelon, The Washington Post

  • "the stories of the lives of this first generation of women lawyers are so rich that they speak for themselves"

    —, The Federal Lawyer

  • "Her history and biography have produced a valuable study that transcends disciplinary boundaries and should have wide appeal outside academia."

    —, Law and Society Review

  • "Rebels at the Bar is not just a story of movement.  It is the story of individuals and the individual sacrifice they made in order to become lawyers.  Next time I have a student who complains about a B+, I plan to recite one of these stories.  Success comes with nerve and sacrifice.  These women had both."

    —Laurie L. Levenson , LA Review of Books

  • "Rebellion was not on the minds of the extraordinary, first-generation female lawyers portrayed in Jill Norgren's engaging history, Rebels at the Bar...More than just a biography, Norgren's book also provides a snapshot of legal history and the professionalization of legal practice in the United States....Norgren's thorough footnotes and extensive bibliography attest to the depth of research informing the book.  She places the lives of these women in the context of nineteenth century America, where they attempted to build their practices and institute social and legal reforms."

    —Christine K. Dulaney, Law Library Journal

  • "Norgren's book will appeal to readers seeking to imagine the lives and work of the earliest women in the legal profession.  By portraying women lawyers as ambitious human beings with complicated personal lives and real economic needs, Norgren enables these women's histories to speak to some of our persisting questions about gender, work, family, and professionalism.  The book will make a good gift for some aspiring lawyers, helping them see into the struggles of earlier generations and questioning some of their assumptions about the entry of women into the legal profession."

    —Karen Leroux, Judicature

  • "Norgren has assembled and rendered accessible an impressive array of pioneering women." 

    Women's Review of Books

  •  “Norgren’s stories show that the fight for women’s equality can never be defined by a single, central goal, for while these women’s lives were deeply entwined with the fight for suffrage, their efforts were fueled by and helped to spark reform in a wide range of social justice movements. These biographies, with all their intimate detail and individuality, also reminds us that, while feminist efforts are often characterized as a series of overarching waves, bounded by certain moments in time, the fight for equality is not propelled by some tidal force but by the resolve and practice of women and progressive men who are linked across history by their actions.”

    —, Journal of American Culture