“The part assigned to women by nature is inconsistent with the practice of law.”

In re Dorsett, Minnesota Court of Common Pleas, October 1876

Martha Angle Dorsett was the first woman admitted to practice law in Minnesota. Ms. Dorsett was born in New York in 1851. After earning a bachelor of philosophy degree from the University of Michigan, she enrolled in the Iowa College of law. She graduated there in 1876 and married her classmate, Charles Dorsett, the same year.

Photo of Martha Angle Dorsett
Martha Angle Dorsett

Dorsett and her husband were admitted to the Iowa bar. They then relocated to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they applied for admission to practice in Minnesota’s courts. Charles Dorsett’s application was granted. Martha Dorsett’s was not.

Minneapolis Tribune, October 5, 1876

Using language very similar to that employed by Court Chief Justice Edward Ryan when he denied Lavinia Goodell’s application for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court bar (Unlike Ms. Dorsett, Lavinia Goodell had been admitted to practice in Rock County Circuit Court, but was denied admission to the state’s Supreme Court. Read about Lavinia’s battle for admission to that bar here), Judge Austin H. Young of the Court of  Common Pleas denied Ms. Dorsett the right to practice in any Minnesota court. The Judge cited Minnesota’s statute which limited admission to the bar to “any male person of the age of twenty-one.” Judge Young’s opinion echoed Ryan’s in other respects:

The law is noted for its conservatism, and especially so is that class of lawyers and judges who have made their profession a life study, and believe that a lawyer can only attain to a standing worthy of his calling by a lifelong application thereto. The part assigned to women by nature, is as a rule inconsistent with this idea.

The work the wives and mothers of our land are called upon to perform, and the part they are taking training and educating the young, and which none other can do so well, forbids that they shall bestow that time (early and late) and labor, so essential in attaining to the eminence to which the true lawyer should ever aspire. It cannot therefore be said that the opposition of courts to the admission of females to practice, when such opposition has been manifest, is to any extent the outgrowth of that conservatism, or as it is sometimes styled, “old fogyism,” which is opposed to the enfranchisement of women; it arises rather from a comprehension of the magnitude of the responsibilities connected with the successful practice of law, and a desire to grade up the profession, and encourage only those to adopt the same, as from their attainments, natural and acquired, are qualified for, and from their adaptability and earnestness, it may reasonably be expected will honor the calling.

The October 21, 1876 issue of the Woman’s Journal, which Lavinia read faithfully, carried news of Judge Young’s opinion on the front page with this commentary:

The judge can be easily tripped in his logic…. The words of the statute are “Any male person of the age of twenty-one years, etc.” Applicants who are twenty-two years of age or older, are not prohibited in express terms, but inasmuch as the statute affirmatively provides for the admission of candidates of the age of twenty-one, there is what the judge would term an “implied inhibition.” That statute is a weak peg to hang a decision on.  

On October 24, 1876, Lavinia’s diary notes that she wrote to Ms. Dorsett. The letter does not survive, but perhaps Lavinia encouraged her Minnesota compatriot to petition the legislature to make the statute gender neutral, which is precisely what Lavinia was doing in Wisconsin. Ms. Dorsett’s legislative campaign was successful. Governor Pillsbury signed the new law on March 1, 1877. In January 1878 Judge Vanderburgh admitted Ms. Dorsett to the Hennepin County bar.

Minneapolis Tribune, January 11, 1878

Ms. Dorsett practiced law only briefly. She co-owned a printing press and catering business with her husband. She was active in suffrage associations. She died in 1918, just two years before women gained the right to vote.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diary (October 24, 1876); Minneapolis Tribune (October 5, 1876; January 11, 1878); Woman’s Journal. 1876. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Vol. 7, no. 43, October 21, 1876, seq. 343; https://www.minnpost.com/mnopedia/2019/09/before-martha-dorsett-could-become-minnesotas-first-female-attorney-she-had-to-get-the-law-changed/.

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