Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lelia Robinson, Part 4

[This is the fourth and final post on the pioneer American woman lawyer Lelia Robinson. The series starts here.]

Unable to persuade her family to join her in Seattle, Robinson reluctantly returned to Boston and once again attempted to establish a law practice. She first sought work as a stenographer in the law office of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (right), so as to reacquaint herself with the methods of practice in Massachusetts. "The work was extremely hard, and my employer was entirely unaccustomed to having a woman about the office, and could not get used to it; while I, though full of admiration for the man's energy and sterling good heart, could not get used to his gruff, short ways of speech and manner." Her escape was almost by chance. "When I went into court with [Higginson] to take the testimony of a hotly contested case, one of the court officials who knew me (as of course they all do) put my name of the list as one of the counsel, and so it came out in all the papers the next day, to my intense surprise. This was too much for good Col. H., so he told me that he really thought I was wasting my abilities in his office, and in justice to myself and all women, I ought to be in practice for myself."

Her new office was quite modest:
I was very lucky in getting a little room opening from the large offices used by two attorneys who do a trust and conveyancing business, and who let me have it rent free, on consideration of my rendering some little services for them occasionally. . . . I have not fitted up as I did my first little office, by any means. I have come to the conclusion that too much luxury in a lawyer's office doesn't look business like. So an oil cloth carpet-because the floor is a very poor one-a desk, office chair and a couple of common chairs are all I have put in, and I don't worry about dust, or spots on the windows any more than other lawyers do.
Despite Robinson's sympathy with the temperance movement and her pro-suffrage tendencies, she believed that women lawyers best served the cause of women's rights by succeeding professionally and treating their careers like their male counterparts did. "I must assume that all women who study law do so with the same purpose that their brother students have in view," she wrote, "namely, that of being admitted to the bar and entering upon the practice of the profession for which they have studied." She advocated a gender-neutral approach to lawyering. "Do not take sex into the practice. Don't be 'lady lawyers.' Simply be lawyers, and recognize no distinction-no existence of any distinction between yourselves and the other members of the bar. This will be your surest way to that forgetfulness of self which will give your mind freedom to achieve success." Besides, an appeal to women clients was not likely to be rewarded. "As a rule, women are more timid and reluctant to trust their affairs to the care of a woman lawyer than are men," Robinson maintained.

Robinson thought that the only justifiable excuse for abandoning legal practice was marriage and child-rearing "because they are woman's highest duties." Other than that, Robinson wrote:
Anything whatever that lures the woman attorney away from her office should be put aside-must be put aside-if women are ever to establish themselves as a recognized element of the bar of this country. . . . If a woman who has studied law or been admitted to the bar abandons practice, even temporarily for the lecture field-whether her subject be temperance, suffrage, or any other great stirring question of the day, and whether her object be philanthropy, money, fame, or all three-she may be the more successful lecturer for her legal training, doubtless, but the world will say she lectures because she cannot succeed in practice. And so of any other path, aside from that of the law itself, which she may choose.
In 1889 Robinson wrote to the Equity Club for advice about the compatibility of marriage and a professional career. "Is it practicable for a woman to successfully fulfill the duties of wife, mother and lawyer at one and the same time? Especially a young married woman? I wish some of our members would discuss this question in its pros and cons." In 1890, she answered the question to her own satisfaction, marrying Eli Sawtelle, a Boston piano maker and dealer. Sawtelle supported his wife's career:
My husband is proud of my professional ambition and does everything a husband can do to encourage and sustain me in it. His wedding present was a fine new roll-top desk for my office, and he does not fret very much when it is discovered that every pair of his socks is in need of mending.
Robinson quickly added that when Eli's socks needed darning, "I sit down the same instant, usually and have a pair ready in about three minutes." And as late as 1890 she was still puzzling her way through the confiicting demands of marriage and career in an article on women lawyers for the legal magazine, The Green Bag. A difficulty in estimating the number of female lawyers, she explained, was "the fact that many women who have studied law, who have taken degrees in law, or who have been admitted to the bar, are not at the present time in active practice, owing to a variety of reasons; yet as we do not cease to regard as a lawyer the politician who spends his days at Washington in his country's service, so neither should the woman who has temporarily or even permanently abandoned the office and the court-room for the platform of the nursery, thereby lose recognition as a lawyer." The overall tone of Robinson's Green Bag article is an optimistic one, convinced that a new day has dawned for lady lawyers.

This happy time in Robinson's personal and professional life came to an abrupt end when she died unexpectedly the following year at the age of forty-one. She died of an overdose of the drug belladonna, which was taken to induce sleep. The Chicago Legal News reported that Robinson had been sick for the six months prior to her death. The story described her illness as "a severe attack of grip which left her very weak and her nerves in a shattered condition. Under the best of medical treatment she failed to regain her strength." Whether or not her death was from an accidental overdose or a suicide is uncertain. The conventions of Victorian writing, particularly about the infirmities of women, often left the reader uncertain of the subject's true health. Robinson's "shattered nerves" could be a euphemism for a nervous breakdown and precursor to suicide. Alternately, Robinson could have just been recovering from a severe cold and bronchitis which was described as "nerves" because she was female, and in nineteenth-century medicine women were thought to be prone to nervous system disorders. Also, belladonna is a very potent and lethal drug, and it would have been quite easy for Robinson to miscalculate the dose. The truth behind Robinson's death will never be known, but the idea of the career woman's physical collapse because her feminine constitution was ill-suited to the professional life captured the public imagination.

[In some years I next assign Charles C. Moore's short story, "The Woman Lawyer," first published in the Hartford Daily Times on May 18, 1886, and reprinted in the Green Bag in 1914. Its title notwithstanding, the story is valuable principally for the light it throws on notions of masculinity prevailing among male lawyers in nineteenth-century America. On that topic, I believe the best work is still Michael Grossberg's chapter "Institutionalizing Masculinity: The Law as a Masculine Profession," in Meanings for Manhood: Constructions of Masculinity in Victorian America, ed. Mark Christopher Carnes and Clyde Griffen (University of Chicago Press, 1990), 133-51.]

Image credit: Higginson.

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