of female lawyers. When she returned to
Boston she reopened her practice, wrote
two books about the law for general
readers, and became a mentor to female
attorneys in Boston and beyond. In this
way, Lelia Robinson’s Seattle experience
helped shape an emerging national community of female lawyers. 18 N WL
Erin Gayton has a doctorate in
literature from the University of
California–San Diego, and has
taught at Duke University and the
University of Washington–Bothell.
She lives in Olympia and can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Lelia J. Robinson to the Equity Club, April
7, 1888, in 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), 126–127. The Equity Club
was founded in 1886 by a group of women
lawyers from the University of Michigan Law
School. The first professional organization for
women lawyers, the club connected other wise
isolated women through correspondence.
2. See Michael Grossberg, “Institutionalizing
Masculinity: The Law as a Masculine Profession” in Mark C. Carnes and Clyde Griffen,
eds., Meanings for Manhood: Constructions
of Masculinity in Victorian America (
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
3. Robinson to the Equity Club, April 7, 1888, in
Drachman, Women La wyers.
4. On masculinity and 19th-century legal
culture, see Grossberg, “Institutionalizing
Masculinity,” 133–151. See also Virginia G.
Drachman, Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers
in Modern American History (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1998).
5. Lelia J. Robinson’s Case, 131 Mass. 376
(1881). On Robinson’s petition to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, see Drachman,
Sisters in Law, 27–30.
6. By the end of the century, most states had
removed legal barriers to women practicing
law, but female enrollment in law schools
remained low and women remained at the
margins of the legal profession. As Michael
Grossberg reminds us, “[i]nformal constraints continued to decree the law a man’s
7. Robinson to the Equity Club, April 7, 1888, in
Drachman, Women Lawyers, 121.
8. Robinson to the Equity Club, April 7, 1888, in
9. Robert Ficken, Washington Territory (
Pullman: Washington State University Press,
10. John C. Putnam, Class and Gender Politics in
Progressive-Era Seattle (Reno: University of
Nevada Press, 2008), 12–17.
11. Robinson to the Equity Club, April 7, 1888, in
Drachman, Women Lawyers, 121–122.
12. Lelia J. Robinson, “Women Jurors,” Chicago
Legal Times, Nov. 1886, qtd. in Rodriguez,
13. Cristina M. Rodriguez, “Clearing the Smoke-
Filled Room: Women Jurors and the Disrup-
tion of an Old-Boys Network in Nineteenth-
Century America” 108.7 The Yale Law
Journal (1999): 1806.
14. Ficken, Washington Territory, p. 139.
15. Robinson to the Equity Club, April 7, 1888, in
Drachman, Women Lawyers, 127. In the same
1888 letter, Robinson asserts that “the idea of
a woman in the law is no longer an uncomfortable novelty,” but much of her advice to
younger women entering the field suggests
that women must still tread carefully as legal
culture adapts to their presence. In later article, Robinson remarks that “the novelty of
[the woman lawyer’s] existence has scarcely
begun to wear off, and the newspapers publish and republish little floating items about
women lawyers along with those of the latest
sea-serpent, the popular idea seeming to be
that the one is about as real as the other.”
Lelia J. Robinson, “Women Lawyers in the
United States,” 2 Green Bag, 1890.
16. Robinson to the Equity Club, April 7, 1888,
17. Robinson to the Equity Club, April 7, 1888,
18. Robinson remarried in 1890 and died of
an accidental overdose in 1891. She was 41
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