Ada Kepley was the first American woman to graduate from law school. Born Ada Harriet Miser in Somerset, Ohio, in 1847, she lived with her family in St. Louis, Missouri, from 1860-1866, before ultimately settling in Effingham, Illinois. It was there that she met and married lawyer Henry Kepley and became his legal assistant. However, she soon decided to attend law school herself and traveled to Chicago to attend what was then called Union College of Law (now Northwestern Pritzker School of Law), where she was considered the “token woman” of her class and not expected to graduate.
Defying the odds, Kepley, in 1870, became the first woman to graduate law school in the United States. However, when she traveled with her classmates to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to obtain her license, she learned that women in Illinois were actually barred from entering any learned profession. In response, her husband drafted a bill to allow women to enter professional fields. The bill was passed in 1872, but by this time, Kepley had already become immersed in the area of women’s rights and the temperance movement and thus did not apply for and receive her legal license until 1881.
At this time, Kepley also ran for Illinois State Attorney General as the Prohibition Party candidate and though she didn’t win, she continued to advocate for women’s suffrage. Determined to change the rhetoric surrounding women and politics, Kepley strived to dispel the notion that women had no interest in voting by encouraging them to vote in education-related elections — the only elections in which women of that time were allowed to participate. She also campaigned across Illinois, gathering 40,000 signatures in support of an amendment that would give women the right to vote in that state.
Ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1892, Kepley used the church as a place to organize her children’s group, Band of Hope, which focused on alcohol addiction education. Kepley’s passion for the temperance movement stemmed from the treatment she’d witnessed toward women and children at the hands of intoxicated men.
After the death of her husband in 1906, Kepley relocated to a farm near Mason, Illinois, but unable to support herself, moved back to Effingham, where she launched her writing career. In 1912, Kepley released her autobiography, A Farm Philosopher: A Love Story, but sales from this and other publications provided little income. Though she sadly died in poverty in 1925, at the age of 78, Kepley will always be remembered as a pioneer who paved the way for women in law.