Bradwell v. Illinois

Bradwell v. State of Illinois, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 130 (1873), was a United States Supreme Court case that solidified the narrow reading of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and determined that the right to practice a profession was not among these privileges.[1] The case is also notable for being an early 14th Amendment challenge to sex discrimination in the United States.

Bradwell v. Illinois
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued January 18, 1873
Decided April 15, 1873
Full case nameMyra Bradwell v. State of Illinois
Citations83 U.S. 130 (more)
16 Wall. 130; 21 L. Ed. 442; 1873 U.S. LEXIS 1140
Case history
PriorApplication denied, sub nom., In re Bradwell, 55 Ill. 535 (1869)
Illinois constitutionally denied law licenses to women, because the right to practice law was not one of the privileges and immunities guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Illinois Supreme Court affirmed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Salmon P. Chase
Associate Justices
Nathan Clifford · Noah H. Swayne
Samuel F. Miller · David Davis
Stephen J. Field · William Strong
Joseph P. Bradley · Ward Hunt
Case opinions
MajorityMiller, joined by Clifford, Davis, Strong, Hunt
ConcurrenceBradley, joined by Field, Swayne
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV

Background of the caseEdit

In 1869, Myra Bradwell passed the Illinois bar exam and applied for admission to the Illinois bar in accordance with a state statute that permitted any adult of good character and with sufficient training to be admitted to the practice of law. Because she was a woman, however, the Illinois Supreme Court denied her admission, noting that the "strife" of the bar would surely destroy femininity. The legal rationale was based on the common law doctrine of coverture which denied a married woman a legal existence apart from her husband. Bradwell appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that her right to practice law was protected by the Privileges or Immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court's DecisionEdit


The Supreme Court disagreed with Bradwell. In an 8-1 ruling, it upheld the decision of the Illinois court, ruling that the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not include the right to practice a profession, so it was properly regulable by the states. The majority opinion forgoes lengthy discussion of this point by referring to the discussion of privileges and immunities in the Slaughterhouse Cases.

The majority also dismissed any claim under the privileges and immunities clause of the unamended Constitution—Article IV, Section 2, Clause 1. Bradwell argued that because she had been born in Vermont but later moved to Illinois, Illinois' denial of a law license was inter-state discrimination. But the Court noted that under the recently enacted Fourteenth Amendment, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." Because Bradwell had been a resident of Illinois for several years, she was now a citizen of Illinois, and the interstate provision of Article IV did not apply.

Other opinionsEdit

Although the majority opinion makes virtually no reference to Bradwell's sex and does not decide the case on the basis of her being a woman, three justices found her sex critical. Justice Bradley's opinion concurring in the Court's judgment posits that “[t]he natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life... The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.” 83 U. S. 130, 142. This is at odds with Bradley's dissent in the Slaughterhouse Cases, where he had argued (with respect to men) that "the right of any citizen to follow whatever lawful employment he chooses to adopt (submitting himself to all lawful regulations) is one of his most valuable rights, and one which the legislature of a State cannot invade, whether restrained by its own constitution or not." 83 U.S. 36, 114.

The sole dissenter, Chief Justice Chase, was unable to file an opinion due to deteriorating health.[2]

Subsequent HistoryEdit

Because the Court limited the application of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Constitution to the privileges of non-citizens in foreign United States states and because the Court extremely limited the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughterhouse Cases, subsequent parties alleging discrimination turned to the Equal Protection Clause.

In 1971, the Court would, for the first time, overturn, using the Equal Protection Clause, a gender-based distinction in Reed v. Reed. While the Court in Reed applied only a rational basis review to strike down a decision giving males preference to females for administrator of estates positions, the Court would later apply intermediate scrutiny in Craig v. Boren. Today, the Court's approach in Craig is still applied.

Myra Bradwell's case in part prompted the Illinois Legislature to adopt a statute in 1872 that forbade sex discrimination in professional licensing. Toward the end of her life, the Illinois Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court admitted Bradwell to practice law, nunc pro tunc, so that the year of her admittance was officially, albeit symbolically, 1869.[3]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 130 (1873).
  2. ^ Aynes 1999, pp. 526–527, 538–539
  3. ^ Wills, Leonard (October 31, 2017). "Myra Bradwell: The First Woman Admitted to the Illinois Bar". Practice Point. American Bar Association. Retrieved 2020-01-09.


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