Monday, December 21, 2009

Lelia Robinson, Part 1

[During this holiday season, I'm serializing a note from my course materials, the first draft of which was written long ago by one of my research assistants, on the early American woman lawyer, Lelia Josephine Robinson. The first installment is below; for more on Robinson, see the materials collected by the Stanford Women Legal History Biography Project.]

Like most professional women of the nineteenth century, Lelia Josephine Robinson (1850-1891), the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts bar, came from a white, solidly middle class background. Her father was a trader in Boston and she was raised in the city. She enjoyed a comfortable childhood. She attended public schools in Boston and at seventeen considered her education complete. She also married Rupert J. Chute, a local tinsmith, when she was seventeen. Unlike many Victorian women, Robinson continued her outside employment during her marriage. She worked as a journalist and wrote articles for many Boston papers between 1867 and 1877.

Ten years after wedding Chute, Robinson divorced him in 1877. Divorce in the late nineteenth century was exceedingly rare and difficult to obtain. One of the few acceptable grounds for divorce was adultery, and Robinson publicly charged Chute with adultery in her petition for divorce. Robinson never discussed her first marriage in any of her writings, including her treatise on The Law of Husband and Wife (1889). She resumed the use of her maiden name when she began studying law at the Boston University School of Law in the fall of 1878.

Robinson never explained why she wanted to study law, and she presented somewhat conflicting views of her law school career. In 1891, for example, she wrote that "no three years of my life have ever been pleasanter or more satisfactory in every sense of the word." She elaborated,
I was not permitted to realize or remember the fact that I was the only woman in a large school of men. I was simply a student like the rest, and they made me welcome and at my ease. The only question was what I should do after graduation, for it was then thought to be exceedingly improbable that a woman would gain admission to the bar in Massachusetts.
But some time later she recalled:
[B]eing the only woman in law school, I had to decide, with nothing to guide me, what social attitude I should take towards the hundred and fifty men in the school. I knew none of the students, and the dean, to whom I introduced myself, did not give me any introductions to the students or professors. I was not even told where to sit at lectures, further than to "sit anywhere." So at the first lecture I attended I took a back seat, but could not hear well, and was uncomfortably conscious that the men with difficulty restrained themselves from turning round to look at me. So the next day I resolved to take a front seat, and seeing a gray haired student of elderly appearance, I sat down between him and an exceedingly young man. (I didn't learn till weeks later that they were seated in alphabetical order, and that I had unconsciously ousted one of the C's from his seat, and when I did learn this, the generous C would not resume it, but left me in possession.) Next, I thought it would be absurd not to speak to these men whom I was to meet daily, for lack of an introduction, so I began to bow and speak to all whose faces I could remember, wherever I met them, in school or out. Long afterward I found that this had made it very easy for me, for it seemed that a lady from the west, who had taken part of the course the previous year, had never spoken with any students except one or two with whom she was specially acquainted; that she came a little late to lectures, took a back seat and left a little early, and did not attend recitations at all, thus seeming to feel herself out of place and consequently causing the men to think her so, while the general opinion seemed to be favorable to my attendance, and they paid me the great compliment of calling me a "good fellow." But in settling these and many other small points while in school and after beginning to practice, I was often in great doubt and perplexity.