In 1875, Hoosier Elizabeth Jane Eaglesfield became the first woman to be admitted to the Indiana State Bar Association under an order of Vigo Circuit Court. The Columbus Republican announced her admission and issued this statement:
“No doubt but that she will soar above the low and sordid propensities that the male lawyer is prone to.”
Could this belief that male lawyers were unsavory relate to why she was admitted to the bar in the first place, despite lacking some of the criteria for admission? The lack of a law degree was not an issue yet, as it wasn’t required then, but that would soon change in America. The problem was that she was not a “voter,” which was required by the Indiana Bar. Women couldn’t vote in Indiana until 1921 during a special election. It took the efforts of Judge William Mack to get the 22-year-old Eaglesfield admitted.
Eaglesfield was born on June 29, 1853. She was one of nine children from a prominent family who had helped build up Indiana during its early history. Her family connections may explain why she was able to study the law informally under Judge Mack before she went to law school.
Eaglesfield couldn’t go to law school in Indiana, so went to the University of Michigan, where she earned a degree literature in 1876 and a law degree in 1878, making her the first woman to complete a law degree at that university. Eaglesfield could have stayed in Michigan, but her license to practice was back in Indiana, so she returned to her home state, where she worked as a lawyer in three cities – Brazil, Terre Haute, and, finally, Indianapolis – before she moved back to Michigan in 1885 to practice law.
Most women with law degrees or those admitted to the bar never ventured into litigation, but Eaglesfield was not a typical “woman lawyer” – in fact, one could say that she was not a typical lawyer at all.
To supplement her income as a lawyer, Eaglesfield opened other businesses, became a real estate mogul. She also became the first woman shipping captain on the Great Lakes.
The Golden Girl, her steamboat, was one of five steamboats that she and her son co-owned. As captain and ship owner, Eaglesfield was the law on the lake, and she was on the lake frequently, regardless of weather. She and her son rode out a storm on Golden Girl in 1910. Eaglesfield was not always on the right side of the law. In 1911, she police cited her for illegally shipping fruit and vegetables aboard her ships, but a judge determined she had all of the necessary licenses to conduct her business.
While Eaglesfield was the first woman lawyer in Indiana, her career didn’t herald a flood of other female attorneys. By 1909, she was still the only female lawyer to ever pass the bar, and she was no longer practicing in Indiana. But by the time of her death in 1940, there were enough practicing female lawyers the Indiana Association of Women Lawyers had emerged. This same organization has died out and been reborn several times during the 20th century as the number of female lawyers who wanted a sisterhood waxed and waned.
Today, in 2017, women make up only 36 percent of the legal professionals in Indiana. A 2016 study showed that there is a wide gap between the pay of women lawyers and that of their male colleagues. Across all professions, a 20 percent pay gap between the genders is often cited. Aside from the fact that this statistic ignores differences that reflect race and ethnicity, it seems quite progressive when compared to the gender gap in law, which stands at 44 percent in Indiana. Imagine what the income gap must have been back in Eaglesfield’s day!
If you ever feel like the odds are against you, remember Bessie Eaglesfield. She became the first female lawyer in two states – Indiana and Michigan – and if she could do all of that by the turn of the 20th century, what can you do today in the 21st century?