By the Hon. Helen Marchal, Marion Superior Court
May we take a moment to remember the brave, smart and committed women first to enter our profession in Indiana.
“No doubt but that she will soar above the low and sordid propensities that the male lawyer is prone to.” So stated The Republic (newspaper published in Columbus, Indiana) when Elizabeth (Bessie) Jane Eaglesfield was admitted to the Indiana Bar by Order of the Vigo Circuit Court in 1875.
According to historians, Elizabeth was born in 1853 in Clay County, Indiana. After graduating from Terre Haute High School, she attended the University of Michigan and studied literature and law. Before formally finishing her studies at U of M, she returned to Indiana and began working with Terre Haute lawyer, William Mack. Mack was so impressed with the 22-year-old student, he filed a Motion with Vigo County Circuit Court, requesting Elizabeth be permitted to practice. Vigo Circuit Court Judge Chambers Patterson granted the Motion and issued an Order allowing her to “practice in all the courts of justice.”
"If nature has endowed woman with wisdom, if our colleges have given her education, if her energy and diligence have led her to a knowledge of the law, and if her ambition directs her to adopt the profession, shall it be said that forgotten fictions must bar the door against her?" The Indiana Supreme Court posed this question in its
1893 landmark opinion, in re Petition of Leach, and answered it with a unanimous “no way.”
Antoinette Dakin Leach graduated from the University of Tennessee’s College of Law in 1884. With diploma in hand, she returned to her hometown of Sullivan, Indiana and worked for a local attorney. She also served as court reporter for the Greene-Sullivan Circuit Court. In 1893, Antoinette, with support from at least six male members of the Sullivan County bar, applied for admission to the Greene County bar. Her application was denied by the Judge for whom she’d previously worked. However, many say the Judge’s opinion was written so Antoinette could take the issue to the next level. And that she did. Although not the first “official” female to practice law in Indiana, Antoinette’s victory set legal precedent allowing women the right to become lawyers in Indiana.
“To be a woman lawyer you have to have the hide of a rhinoceros.’” Elizabeth Fletcher Allen’s statement, made years ago, speaks to the many obstacles she experienced as the first black female admitted to the Indiana Bar. We are grateful Elizabeth ignored the counsel of her Boston University admissions counselor who thought it best she stay home and marry.
Born in Chicago in 1905, Elizabeth headed east to study law in Boston. In 1931, she returned to the Midwest and joined her husband, attorney J. Chester Allen, in South Bend. After Elizabeth was admitted to the Indiana bar in 1938, she and J. Chester opened the law offices of Allen and Allen. Together, the couple sought legislative, economic and social changes to end racial discrimination. Elizabeth, described as articulate and ambitious, was committed to the concept of an integrated society. She shared her beliefs in a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who responded with, according to Elizabeth’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, “this long-winded pretentious letter rationalizing the situation…that the races couldn’t live together.” Undeterred, Elizabeth continued her efforts until her death in 1994 and rightly claimed she was an advocate for those “being cheated out of a decent life.”