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Mary Philbrook, 1872-1958
New Jersey's First Woman Attorney

by Barbara Burns Petrick, Ph.D.

 

Mary Philbrook, ca. 1904
Courtesy, B. Petrick


One of New Jersey's most prominent women for equal rights was Mary Philbrook from Jersey City. She was the first woman attorney in the New Jersey and then used her legal training for the advancement of women's rights, the social settlement movement in Jersey City, and a gender free writing of the New Jersey Constitution of 1947.

Mary Philbrook was born in Washington, D. C. in 1872 but her family moved to Jersey City by the time she was six. She attended Public School #11 (now Martin Luther King, Jr. School) and then Jersey City High School (now Dickinson High School). Philbrook left school before graduating to become a stenographer in a law office, and she applied to be admitted to the New Jersey Bar in February 1894.

The fact that Mary had not attended college, law school, or even finished high school was no barrier to her admission as a lawyer. At the time, candidates could simply apply to take the bar exam. Some three hundred female lawyers were practicing in thirty other states, but the New Jersey Court decided that "A woman is not, by virtue of her citizenship, vested by the Constitution . . . with any absolute right. . . to practice as an attorney." New Jersey suffragists, including Cecilia Gaines, President of the Jersey City Woman's Club, lobbied the legislature to pass a law in 1895 allowing women to become lawyers in New Jersey, and Mary Philbrook was the first to be admitted. She worked for the law firm of Bacot and Record in Jersey City before starting her own practice. In 1906 she was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court, the first woman from New Jersey to be so appointed.

Philbrook volunteered to be counsel for the Legal Aid Society at Cornelia Bradford's Whittier House in lower Jersey City, and she helped Mabel Douglass and the College Club of Jersey City to promote the founding of New Jersey College for Women (now Douglass College). During the suffrage campaign, Philbrook supported the militant activism of Alice Paul and her National Woman's Party in Washington, DC. After the passage of the 19th amendment, Philbrook worked with Alice Paul for the passage of an equal rights amendment.

In 1947 she led a successful effort to change the wording of the New Jersey Constitution to insure equal rights for women. As a result the word "persons" is used to include both sexes, making sexual discrimination unconstitutional. She died in 1958.

References:
Petrick, Barbara Burns. "Mary Philbrook." Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women by Women's Project of New Jersey. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990.
Mary Philbrook: The Radical Feminist in New Jersey. Trenton NJ: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1981.

 

By: Carmela Karnoutsos
Project Administrator: Patrick Shalhoub