Women Lawyers and the Quest for Professional Identity in Late Nineteenth-Century America
Whenever Lelia Robinson, a nineteenth-century woman lawyer, prepared to take a case to court, she faced a particular problem what to do about her hat. “Shall the woman attorney wear her hat when arguing a case or making a motion in court,” she asked in 1888, “or shall she remove it?” Robinson’s question was not a frivolous matter of fashion, but a serious concern to every woman lawyer who entered the courtroom. As a proper lady of her day, it was not only appropriate that she wear a hat in public, it was expected of her. But as a lawyer, professional etiquette demanded that she remove her hat when she entered the courtroom.
This dilemma was but one of many perplexing problems that confronted Robinson and other women lawyers in late nineteenth-century America as they strived to establish their professional identity. At every turn they encountered the challenge of reconciling their traditional roles as women with their new roles as lawyers. As a woman, her place was at home, as the caretaker of domestic and family concerns. As a lawyer, her place was in the office and the courtroom, as the protector of justice and freedom. As a woman, she was expected to be modest, sentimental, and caring, the ideal true woman; as a lawyer, she was expected to be assertive, rational, and objective. Robinson’s quandary over her bonnet was part of the larger problem of how to balance her feminine and professional identities. However, Robinson, the first woman admitted to the bar in Massachusetts, did not have to face this problem alone. She turned for advice to a unique community of women lawyers – the members of the Equity Club.