More than half of a century before the famous Ruth Bader Ginsberg spent her legal career advocating for the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights, a determined Hudson County woman was trailblazing in her own regard. Mary Philbrook was the first woman to be admitted to the Bar Association in New Jersey and a pioneer in the women’s suffrage movement.
During the late 1800s, the state statute stated that any citizen, after reading the law in the office of an attorney, could apply. So, despite her lack of college or law school degrees, Ms. Philbrook did exactly that. At first, her petition to join the Bar Association in 1894 was rejected on the grounds that no other woman in the state had ever sought admission to the bar, despite the fact that over 300 women were practicing attorneys in 30 other states.
After gaining the support of the NJ Woman Suffrage Association, the two lobbied in the New Jersey legislature for a law that would allow women to practice the law. In 1895, a bill was passed stating "no person would be denied admission to examination for a license to practice as an attorney..." that same year Mary was admitted to the bar.
Ms. Philbrook’s mark on history did not end after she was admitted. In fact, she was one of the most prominent women’s rights advocates from New Jersey. Mary went on to become the first woman appointed to Chancery Court and the second to be a notary public. While simultaneously fighting for her gender’s right to vote, Mary was taking on challenging cases and championing for New Jersey’s most vulnerable citizens through causes like child labor reform, an extension of the probation system, a state reformatory for women, and separate juvenile courts.
In 1906, Philbrook made history as the first woman appointed to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her appointment was based on the constitutional claim of New Jersey women to vote.
After women were awarded the right to vote in 1919, Mary shifted her focus and began working toward the complete emancipation of women. She used her position to advocate for women in New Jersey and beyond, she organized several committees and wrote various petitions to amend the state constitution to include an equal rights provision and reword the preamble to affirm women's rights. Mary's final major triumph was the replacement of references to "men" in the New Jersey Constitution with references to "persons."
Mary Philbrook’s eagerness and persistence helped provide women the rights we happily have today. She is an inspiration to everyone in the country, but should be even more so in our community! Mary moved to Jersey City from Washington, D.C. when she was six. She is a product of the Jersey City public school system, she attended P.S. 11 (Martin Luther King, Jr. School in Journal Square) then Jersey City High School (now William L. Dickinson High School).
Karnoutsos, Carmela. "Mary Philbrook, 1872-1958 New Jersey's First Woman Attorney by Barbara Burns Petrick, Ph.D." Summit Newkirk House. Accessed March 06, 2019. https://www.njcu.edu/programs/jchistory/Pages/P_Pages/Philbrook_Mary.htm.
"Mary Philbrook Public Interest Awards." RSS. Accessed March 06, 2019. https://law.rutgers.edu/mary-philbrook-public-interest-awards.
Njwomenshistory.org. Accessed March 06, 2019. http://www.njwomenshistory.org/discover/biographies/mary-philbrook/