“The future for women law graduates is bright”

Emily Kempin-Spyri, first woman law graduate in Switzerland, 1888

Arabella Mansfield is often cited as the first woman lawyer in the United States, gaining admission to the bar in 1869 (although she never practiced). By the time Lavinia Goodell was admitted to practice law in Wisconsin in 1874, she joined a small coterie of a dozen or so other American women. A previous post featured Lidia Poët, Italy’s first woman lawyer. The first Swiss woman to earn a law degree was Emily Kempin-Spyri.

Emily Kempin-Spyri

Emily Spyri was born in 1853. She was the niece of Johanna Spyri, the author of Heidi. She was born into a wealthy family but married against her father’s wishes. Her husband, pastor and social reformer Walter Kempin, supported her aspirations to become a lawyer. She graduated from the University of Zurich’s law school in 1883 and earned a doctoral degree, summa cum laude, in 1887. However, she was denied the right to practice because she was not an “active citizen” of Switzerland. The Swiss constitution required a citizen to pay taxes and serve in the military, which excluded women. After her appeal to the Supreme Court but was denied, she came to New York where there were greater opportunities for women lawyers. In order to familiarize herself with American law, she applied for admission to Columbia College Law School. It was four months before her request was denied, but in the meantime she had been quietly attending the school’s lectures. New York University allowed her to attend law classes, as a courtesy to the University of Zurich, with the understanding that her attendance would create no precedent for other women. Unfortunately, she was denied admission to the New York City bar association because she was a foreigner. She then co-founded a free legal clinic for the poor and soon afterward decided to establish a law school for women.

Brooklyn Times Union, October 5, 1888

When asked what future there would be for graduates of her law school, Kempin replied, “A bright one.” She predicted that women lawyers would be successful with juries because “They have a good deal of intuitive knowledge of human nature and are supposed to have much experience in testing the motives which will appeal to average men.”  She said she expected to see women judges in the twentieth century.  She said she did not expect women to have “great railroad or corporation cases, at least for many years,” but thought women lawyers would have plenty of business in cases involving landlord-tenant matters, real estate and contract cases, will cases, and, of course divorces.

Kempin returned to Zurich in 1891. Her application to practice law was again rejected.  She separated from her husband and in 1896 went to Berlin to teach law. The last years of her life were not happy ones. She suffered a breakdown in 1897 and was treated at a number of mental institutions. She died in 1901 in Basel, Switzerland, at age 48, of cancer.

The New York University School of Law named a chair after her, and in 2009 the University of Zurich honored her with a commemorative plaque.

Sources consulted: The Evening World (New York, March 4, 1889); Brooklyn Times Union (October 5, 1889);  https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/a-woman-ahead-of-her-times/1015736; https://www.biapsy.de/index.php/en/9-biographien-a-z/152-kempin-spyri-emilie-e

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