Kate Kane, a criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee, gained notoriety in 1883 after tossing a glass of water in a judge’s face. She had grown tired of his insults, she explained to the press, and said that he had been trying to drive her out of his courtroom for some time. The bedraggled judge seized the opportunity to do so after her outburst, jailing her on contempt charges. In one of its seven articles on the incident, the New York Times referred to Kane as being “mad as a wet hen” and criticized her method of “getting even” as “decidedly feminine.”

After her release, Kane moved to Chicago, like many women in the late 19th century who wanted to practice law. Chicago’s law schools were among the first in the country to admit women, and the city was also home to the most prominent legal newspaper in the midwest, the Chicago Legal News, which was founded and edited by a woman deeply committed to eradicating gender discrimination. Her name was Myra Bradwell, and ten years before Kane’s arrival in Chicago, she and a tenacious 16-year-old from Rockford named Alta May Hulett had blazed the trail for Illinois women to enter the legal profession.

Until recently, information about the pioneering women lawyers in Illinois was hard to come by. But after a massive three-year undertaking sponsored by the Chicago Bar Association Alliance for Women and the Chicago Public Library, their stories are now documented in the exhibit “Bar None: 125 Years of Women Lawyers in Illinois” and its companion book of the same name.

Gwen McNamee, a lawyer and graduate student of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, came up with the idea for the project and spearheaded the research, working with a team of volunteers to unearth as many details as possible about the lives and careers of the first hundred women lawyers in the state. They combed through the Illinois Supreme Court’s list of female lawyers (whose names were recorded on pink cards), old court records, newspapers, historical-society archives, and minutes of meetings and annual reports from feminist organizations.

McNamee intends for the project not only to celebrate the women’s lives but to straighten out the record of their overall contributions to the legal profession as well. “The dominant historical discourse has early women lawyers either being so extraordinary that you can’t use them as typical examples of what women were like in the 19th century or represents them as wives of lawyers who helped their husbands as glorified secretaries,” she says.

Though their numbers were small, many of the women had their own thriving careers. They won cases in front of all-male juries, founded professional organizations, published articles in law journals, tirelessly advocated labor reform and women’s suffrage, and created the nation’s first juvenile court. “Their history doesn’t just add to the picture, it changes the whole picture,” says McNamee. “Women had an influence on how courts are structured, what laws were adopted, and how they were enforced or interpreted.”

Hulett, for example, wrote the country’s first law against sex discrimination when she was only 16. Although she had passed the bar exam, the state supreme court refused to grant her a law license because she was a woman. A year earlier Bradwell had run into the same wall and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though it couldn’t have surprised her, Hulett’s rejection prompted her to spring into action. With assistance from Bradwell and a few other like-minded individuals she drafted legislation preventing the use of gender to bar women from the workforce. She then lobbied legislators, lectured to crowds all over the state, and gained wide public support for her bill, which became law in 1872, with a few modifications to ensure that women stayed out of the military and the road-construction business.

The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court, considering Bradwell’s appeal, ruled that states had the right to set their own standards for admission to the bar. Two months later–and two days after turning 19–Hulett, under the very law she had written, became the first woman in Illinois to obtain a law license. Her career was short but successful. She died at 22 of “pulmonary consumption,” without having lost a jury trial.

After Hulett’s law removed the gender barrier, “Chicago became the center of women’s legal practice in the United States,” says Patricia McMillen, a special adviser to the exhibit and one of the book’s contributing authors. “We had this wonderful shining moment.”

The women still faced practical obstacles. There were no women’s bathrooms in the courthouses, and Victorian fashions constricted their movement. “The dresses were so tightly designed through the shoulders that they couldn’t lift their arms,” says McMillen. A nationwide debate among women lawyers in the late 1880s centered on whether they should flout social convention and remove their hats in the courtroom, as their male counterparts were required to do.

“None of the stereotypes I had of 19th-century women survived this process,” says McMillen. “Previously I thought liberation began with the pill. But these women went ahead and had kids and careers and wrote books. The big question to me was, What would make a woman in 1871, who’d never seen a woman lawyer or judge or juror, get out there and say, ‘I’m going to go practice law’? What made them feel that they could do anything they wanted?”

McMillen was also surprised at the diversity of the group–which included an African-American, a blind woman, and some women from working-class backgrounds–and that they weren’t pigeonholed in certain areas of the law. They represented individuals and businesses alike, in both civil and criminal courts. Some went on to hold political positions; one became a doctor; one published poetry.

As for Kate Kane, she became the 13th woman to be admitted to the Illinois bar, got married, and, as Kate Kane Rossi, continued raising eyebrows. Before she retired in 1920, she specialized in representing prostitutes and laborers and fought to improve jail conditions. She lost a few judicial elections, ran unsuccessfully for state’s attorney on the Abolition of Female Slavery ticket, and tried but failed to get appointed chief of police. She also got arrested again–this time for disorderly conduct while trying to force her way into the mayor’s office. A jury acquitted her.

“Bar None: 125 Years of Women Lawyers in Illinois” is at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, through July 26. It’s free; call 312-747-4300 for exhibit hours or see the museum listings in Section Two.

–Tori Marlan

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alta May Hulett, circa 1873 photo courtesy Chicago Historical Society; Patricia McMillen, Gwen McNamee photo by J.B. Spector.