The Rapidian

Women at the Bar: Grand Rapids Attorneys in the 1870s - 1970s

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Learn about the pioneering female attorneys in Grand Rapids who were among the first to venture into the male-dominated legal profession in a presentation March 13 by GVSU professor Ruth Stevens.
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First female attorney in Grand Rapids among the first 15 in the nation

Elizabeth "Bessie" Eaglesfield, one of two women in the 1878 graduating class of the University of Michigan School of Law, was the first female atttorney to hang up her shingle in Grand Rapids.  The remaining class of more than 300 students were men. Inducted in the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame, Eaglesfield made history again as being among the first 15 female attorneys in the nation.

Guest Speaker Ruth Stevens is a local attorney and professor at Grand Valley State University’s School of Criminal Justice.

Guest Speaker Ruth Stevens is a local attorney and professor at Grand Valley State University’s School of Criminal Justice. /Photo Courtesy

Elizabeth "Bessie" Eaglesfield was the first female attorney in Grand Rapids and among the first 15 in the nation.

Elizabeth "Bessie" Eaglesfield was the first female attorney in Grand Rapids and among the first 15 in the nation. /University of Michigan Student Portrait Collection, Bentley Historical Library

Ella Mae Backus, the first female attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Michigan, served 30 years.

Ella Mae Backus, the first female attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Michigan, served 30 years. /The U.S. Attorney's Office -- Western District of Michigan

Join us on a trip back in time when Grand Valley State University professor Ruth Stevens traces the history of the first women attorneys in Grand Rapids, bringing to life their intrepid journeys in a career overwhelmingly dominated by men.   

This small group of pioneering women paved the way for the much larger wave of women attorneys that began practicing here in the late 1960s and 1970s.

In recognition of Women’s History Month, professor Stevens will present the findings of her research at a free program starting at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 13 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, 303 Pearl St. NW.  Reception to follow.

Entitled “Women at the Bar: The First Century of Women Attorney’s in Grand Rapids – 1870s to 1970s, the event is part of a nationwide celebration held each March to highlight an effort, movement or individual achievement related to women.

Woven into her program is the fascinating story of Elizabeth “Bessie” Eaglesfield, one of the first female graduates from the University of Michigan School of Law and the first woman to practice law in Grand Rapids.  In her 1878 class of more than 300, she was one of only two women.

As one of the first 15 female attorneys in the nation, Eaglesfield began advertising for clients in the late 1870s when she hung out her shingle in downtown Grand Rapids.   She was inducted in Michigan’s Women Hall of Fame last year.

Eaglesfield was followed by Ella Mae Backus, the first female attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Michigan who served as the backbone of the office for 30 years. These women were followed by a few others, such as Gale Saunders, but who are mostly unknown today.  

Women had more difficulty entering the law than they did in many other professions. As lawyers and licensed members of the legal profession, the women had position within the conventional institutions of power. But even graduates of good law schools had a difficult time practicing, and many early women attorneys rarely left their desks in the back rooms of their husbands' law offices.  

The first women attorneys in Grand Rapids did not fit that norm. Eaglesfield was in private practice and Backus was one of the country’s few female federal prosecutors. Their willingness to break away from traditional roles women engaged in during that time helped open doors for a tiny but growing group of female lawyers.

In the 1940s and 1950s, a handful of women attorneys kept alive the idea that women could practice law until the Baby Boomers began breaking the ceiling in the late 1960s and 1970s, with law degrees in hand.  Today, of course, there are hundreds of women practicing law in Grand Rapids, including judges, federal prosecuting attorneys, and private practitioners.

Professor Stevens is the Legal Studies Coordinator at GVSU’s School of Criminal Justice.  She graduated with a BA in History from Harvard University, a JD from the University of Michigan and an MLS from Wayne Street University.

Come join us for an event that might be an eye-opener for young professionals!

The event is co-sponsored by the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council, the Grand Rapids Historical Society and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

~By Sharon Hanks, GGRWHC Board Director

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