Sunday, July 22, 2012

157: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ada Kepley

Dear Followers,


These days, law schools are crowded with female students, but in the years after the Civil War, the legal profession was one of the many fields that happened to be gender specific. Today's blog is about Ada Harriet Miser Kepley (2/11/1848-6/13/1925), who was the first American woman to graduate from law school.
Ada grew up in Sommerset, Ohio until her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri when she was thirteen years old. She completed two years of high school there, but when she was 18 the family moved to Effingham, Illinois where her parents ran a hotel and her mother had a bookstore/library.

Her mother was active in the Methodist Church, and their home hosted
quarterly church meetings and pioneer Methodist preachers. The church, however, expelled Ada's father because he was late for Sunday services; the family then changed to Swedenborgianism. And a number of relatives were "psychists" and spiritualists (3: Belief In the Unbelievable).

When she was 20 years old, Ada married Henry B. Kepley, who had a law practice in Effingham and trained his wife to be his legal assistant. With his encouragement and assistance (4: Supportive Someone), she decided to start a legal career of her own. Even though they had to be 200 miles from each other, she moved to Chicago and began attending the Union College of Law from 1869-1870.  Exactly 100 years before I graduated from UCLA, she earned her bachelor of law degree (from what is now known as Northwestern) and became the first woman in the U.S. to do so (13:More Than Meets The Eye).

After graduation, Ada and her classmates went to the Cook County State's Attorney's Office to apply for their licenses to practice law, but she was told that Illinois did not allow women to enter the "learned professions". With her husband's help, she drafted a bill that would forbid sex discrimination in the legal and other professions. It became law in 1872 (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Ada did not reapply for her license until 1881, but she switched her focus from law to three controversial reform issues: women's suffrage, equal rights and temperance. Her temperance work led her to hold office at the local, county, state and national levels of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). From 1883 until 1885 she wrote and published works in favor of temperance, with the result that she became a lightening rod for the movement. An angry saloon keeper beat her over the head, and in 1897 an intruder into her home beat her with a rubber tube. The son of a liquor dealer tried to shoot her, but wounded her dog, and when she and three other women tore down a poster of a half-nude woman, she was arrested and fined $20 (5: Life is Not A Popularity Contest).

Kepley left the Prohibition Party when the women's suffrage (7: Magnificent Obsession) plank was removed, and explained: "I work as hard as a man, I earn money like a man, I bear the burdens of Community like a man. I am robbed as a woman! I have no voice in anything or in saying how my money which I have earned, shall be spent. The men of Illinois and the United States run their hands into my pockets, take out my hard earned money, and say impertinently, 'What are you going to do about it, you can't help yourself.'"

In 1906, Kepler's husband died so she sold their home and moved to a farm. when it failed financially, she tried (unsuccessfully) to earn a living through writing (particularly poems and songs). She was too proud to accept charity from friends, so her last years were spent in poverty and she was regarded (in Effingham) as an eccentric (12: Hard Times).    

Kepley, who in addition to her law degree also earned a Ph.D., worked hard to ensure that future generations--think Sandra Day O'Connor and the other women on the Supreme Court--would have an opportunity to use their talent and intellect.

Looking forward to your comments...

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