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Mary Philbrook (1872-1958): Mary Philbrook (1872-1958)

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Mary Philbrook

Mary Philbrook, 1872-1958
New Jersey's First Woman Attorney
by Barbara Burns Petrick, Ph.D.

Mary Philbrook, the first woman attorney in New Jersey from Jersey City, was one of New Jersey's most prominent women for equal rights. She dedicated her legal career to women's rights issues, the social settlement movement in Jersey City, and the gender-free writing of the New Jersey Constitution of 1947.

Mary Philbrook was born in Washington, D. C. in 1872. Her family moved to Jersey City when she was six. She attended Public School #11 (now Martin Luther King, Jr. School) and Jersey City High School (now Dickinson High School). Philbrook left high school before graduating to become a stenographer in a law office and 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 only needed to apply to appear for the bar exam. Some three hundred female lawyers were practicing in thirty other states. The New Jersey Court, however, 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. Mary Philbrook was the first to be admitted. She worked for the legal firm Bacot and Record in Jersey City before she started her practice. In 1906 she was admitted to practice before the US Supreme Court, the first woman from New Jersey so appointed.

Philbrook volunteered as counsel for the Legal Aid Society at Cornelia Bradford's Whittier House in Jersey City. She also helped Mabel Douglass and the College Club of Jersey City to found the 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 to pass an equal rights amendment.

In 1947, she led a successful effort to change the wording of the New Jersey Constitution to ensure equal rights for women. As a result, the word "persons" is used in state legislation to include both sexes and makes sexual discrimination unconstitutional.

Mary Philbrook - 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.