In 1882 at the age of 38, Mary Hall created a sensation when she applied for admittance to the Connecticut bar in order to practice law. It was not a question of qualifications: Hall had studied law with one of Hartford’s most respected attorneys, who not only certified that she had studied with him for the required time, but also vouched for her character. The decision to admit Hall to the bar was ultimately made by the Connecticut Supreme Court in a ground-breaking decision that established the right of women to practice law in the state of Connecticut.
Mary Hall was born in Marlborough, Conn., the eldest daughter of Gustavus Ezra Hall and Louisa Skinner Hall. Her father was a prosperous farmer and a man of unusually broad-minded convictions who believed that “women as well as men had an equal right to the ballot box and an equal chance to the employment of its blessings, as well as a share in the burden of our government.” Mary’s childhood was spent in the family homestead with one sister and five brothers. In 1866, she graduated from the Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Mass., where she also taught for several years. She went on to teach mathematics at Lasell Academy and, in 1877, began her legal studies with her brother Ezra. Her interest in the law had been kindled on a trip to Hartford, Conn., where she attended a women’s suffrage convention. At the convention, she heard Hartford attorney John Hooker, husband of Isabella Beecher Hooker, speak about the restrictive property rights of married women.
Shortly after she began her law studies, Hall’s brother died. John Hooker then agreed to take her on as a student in his law office, where she studied for four years. Shortly after she began to study with Hooker, Hall was named Commissioner of the Superior Court of Marlborough. In May 1882, she made her bid for formal recognition and declared her intention to practice law. In an open courtroom, four attorneys administered the exam, which Hall passed. Despite her success and recommendation for admittance, the Hartford County Bar Association felt a judicial decision was necessary. The case captured national attention. Ultimately, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a decision in Hall’s favor in July 1882, declaring that Hall was “a qualified person” and thus eligible to practice law in the state alongside men. The case, In Re Hall, was an important milestone in the struggle for women’s legal rights, as it was the first judicial decision in the country that permitted a woman to be a practicing attorney.
Hall spent much of her legal career handling wills and property matters for women. In addition, she became Connecticut’s first female notary in 1884 and helped establish the Hartford Woman Suffrage Club in 1885. As a philanthropist and social reformer, Hall devoted much of her time to the Good Will Club, a charity for boys which she founded in 1880 and which eventually expanded to include 3,000 members. Along with her commitment to the Good Will Club, Hall continued to practice law for four decades and saw not only the admittance of women to the American Bar Association but, finally, the recognition of women’s right to vote. In addition, she was an active member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Connecticut.
When Mary Hall died in 1927 at the age of 84, it was front page news in both the Hartford Courant and Hartford Times.
During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform
When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.
Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”
The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.
In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.
Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.
An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.