Lelia Josephine Robinson

Lelia Josephine Robinson (1850-1891)
Attorney, women’s rights advocate

Born in Boston on July 23, 1850, Lelia Josephine Robinson plowed a path for women into the legal profession in the late nineteenth century. She was the first women to earn a law degree at Boston University Law School, and she was the first woman to gain admission to practice law in Massachusetts. By the age of thirty-two, Robinson had already distinguished herself as a pioneer woman lawyer in America. 

Behind her impressive public accomplishments, Robinson confronted obstacles, made sacrifices, and weighed conflicting strategies for success. She quickly discovered that for a woman, becoming a lawyer was but the first step to being a lawyer.

Robinson began her young adult life like a proper young Victorian woman. At the age of seventeen, she married Rupert J. Chute, a tinsmith, but her marriage did not last. While most women of her day endured failed marriages in silence, Robinson filed for divorce and petitioned the court to resume her maiden name. She never looked back. She entered Boston University Law School in 1878, determined to support herself as a lawyer. The only woman in a school of 150 men, Robinson succeeded in part because she rejected the stereotype of the reserved Victorian lady and eagerly entered in the social life of the classroom. She took a seat in the front of the room (though not the one assigned to her) and won the students over with her outgoing manner. She graduated in 1881, fourth in her class of thirty-two students, and she received her LL.B. cum laude

Robinson had much to be proud of, but she quickly learned that beyond the law school walls, her achievements counted for little. With her degree in hand, she applied for admission to the Massachusetts bar. Her law school record demonstrated that she was as capable as any other aspiring lawyer, but her petition was denied because she was a woman. The decision did not block her path for long. Within six months, the state legislature voted to admit women to practice law on the same terms as men. When Robinson passed the bar in 1882, she broke another barrier, becoming the first woman admitted to practice law in Massachusetts. She described the accomplishment as a watershed in her life, having “crossed the grand Rubicon which made me a full-fledged attorney.”EC 87p65

Ready to pursue a law practice, Robinson rented an office and waited for clients, but she soon discovered that neither men nor women were willing to seek the services of a woman lawyer. Instead, she had to “wait—wait—wearily wait” for so long that she could barely make ends meet.EC,1887, p 65 After more than three disappointing years, she lost patience and headed West to Seattle, where she heard that women had more professional opportunities. She found a mentor in Judge Roger Green, a strong advocate of women’s rights who sent her clients and encouraged her to take cases to court. She became the first woman in Washington to argue a case before a jury and to argue in front of a so-called “mixed” jury of both men and women.

Robinson returned to Boston a year later, ready to put her newfound experience and confidence to use. She became a leader in Boston’s growing community of women lawyers. She trained women in the law at her office, and she founded the Portia Club, a group of Boston women lawyers who met weekly at a local hotel for dinner and discussion. She counseled immigrant and working women at the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, and she gave free legal assistance at her office on Saturdays to women unable to pay for her services. 

Robinson joined the Equity Club, the first national organization of women lawyers, which brought women lawyers around the country together through their annual letters. It was within the privacy of her letters to the Equity Club that Robinson felt comfortable to share some of her most pressing concerns. In doing so, Robinson was once again a pioneer, initiating the earliest conversations among women lawyers about pressing professional and private matters--most which persist today. On the dilemma of how women lawyers should balance their gender and professional identity, she advised: “Don’t be lady lawyers… Simply be lawyers and recognize no distinction…between yourselves and the other members of the bar.”EC’87 p66  On the tricky matter of how women lawyers should dress in the courtroom, she asked her sisters in law: “Shall the woman attorney wear her hat…in court”--as a proper lady would, “or shall she remove it?”--as male lawyers were expected to do.  

Robinson also asked the women of the Equity Club to consider personal matters. “Is it practicable for a woman to successfully fulfill the duties of wife, mother and lawyer at the same time? Especially a young married woman?”EC89p171 Once again, Robinson launched a conversation on a pivotal issue

for nineteenth-century women lawyers, this time asking them to address the intersection of their professional careers with the most intimate concerns of their personal lives. She answered the question for herself in 1890, marrying Eli Sawtelle, a businessman who was a strong supporter of her career. His wedding present to her was a roll-top desk for her office, and he willingly took time out from their honeymoon in Washington, DC, so she could be admitted to the United States Supreme Court. 

At the age of forty, Robinson had reached a peak in both her personal and her professional life. Happily married, she was well-known as a lawyer, respected as an advocate of women’s rights and women’s place in the legal profession, and the author of two books for the popular reader, Law Made Easy: A book for the People (1886) and The Law of Husband and Wife (1889). She commemorated what she declared to be a new era for the woman lawyer in a celebratory article entitled “Women Lawyers in the United States.”Green Bag,1890 Using short biographies of successful women lawyers throughout the country, she proclaimed that women were equal with men, and that women lawyers were here to stay. 

Tragically, Robinson died just a year later in 1891, having taken an accidental overdose of medication while vacationing at her husband’s family home in Amherst, New Hampshire. Though she was only forty-one, she left an enduring legacy that affirmed her place in the history of the legal profession. Today, she is honored with her own words, which are etched permanently into stone on the exterior of the Massachusetts Federal Court House: The best administration of justice may be most safely secured by allowing the representation of all classes of the people in courts of justice. Her declaration of the right of all to be lawyers is a lasting reminder of Lelia J. Robinson’s unique place as a pioneer woman lawyer and advocate of women’s rights in nineteenth-century American history.

  • Virginia Drachman

Main Publications

Lelia Josephina Robinson, Law Made Easy: A Book for the People. 1886; reprinted Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishers, 2010.

Lelia Josephina Robinson, Husband and Wife Compiled for Popular Use.

Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1889; reprinted Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2009.

“Women Lawyers in the United States,” The Green Bag, Vol 11, 1890.

Key References

Douglas Lamar Jones, “Lelia J. Robinson’s Case and the Entry of Women into the Legal. Profession in Massachusetts” in Russell K.Osgood, ed., The History of the Law in Massachusetts: The Supreme Judicial Court1692-1992. Boston: Supreme Judicial Court Historical Society, 1992.

Douglas Lamar Jones, “The Legacy of Lelia J. Robinson,” Massachusetts Legal History: A Journal of the Supreme Judicial Court Historical Society, Vol 6, 2000, pp 49-63.

Virginia G. Drachman, Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998 provides an analysis of Lelia J. Robinson in the context of the history of women lawyers in America

Virginia G. Drachman, Women Lawyers and the Origins of Professional Identity in America: The Letters of the Equity Club, 1887-1890. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993 contains Lelia J. Robinson’s letters to the Equity Club.  

“Lelia Robinson and Mary Greene, Two Women from Boston University School of Law,” chapter 8, Jill Norgren, Rebels at the Bar: The Fascinating, Forgotten Stories of America's First Women LawyersNew York: New York University Press, 2013.