Hulett graduated from Rockford High School in 1870 at the age of 16. She started her career as a schoolteacher but quickly decided to follow other prominent lawyers in her family and study law. She engaged in a self-taught course of reading law each evening following a day in the classroom teaching. Within a few months, she clerked in the law office of prominent Rockford attorney William Lathrop to continue her legal studies. When she pursued her legal studies, the Illinois Supreme Court had already denied Myra Bradwell's application for admission to the bar, and the case was on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Undeterred by the possible obstacles, she continued her legal studies and passed the bar examination in 1871. She applied for admission to the Illinois bar, and the Illinois Supreme Court quickly denied her petition because she was a woman. Opposed to taking an appeal of the decision as Myra Colby Bradwell did. Hulett decided to try to enter the bar by changing the law.
Bradwell attempted to become the first woman to be admitted to the Illinois bar, but was denied admission by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1870 and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1873 in a ruling upholding a separate women's sphere.
At 18, she began a strenuous campaign lobbying the Illinois legislature and garnering public support for a law making it illegal to discriminate based on sex. The bill read as follows:
Section 1. Be it enacted by the People of the State of Illinois, represented by the general assembly: That no person shall be precluded or debarred from any occupation, profession, or employment (except military) on account of sex; provided that the act shall not be construed to affect the eligibility of any person to an elective office.In her lobbying efforts, Ms. Hulett used the same two basic arguments she forwarded in her bar application which had been denied by the Illinois Supreme Court. First, she argued that women, as human beings, had the right to be attorneys. Second, and possibly more controversial at the time, she argued that women had the same ability and intellectual capacity as men and, therefore, could practice on an equal level.
Eight months later, Miss Hulett's bill was signed into law. Illinois legislators had slightly amended the bill, inserting military service and road construction as exceptions to women's open access to occupations.
|Nineteen-year-old Alta May Hulett became the first woman admitted to the Illinois bar in 1873.|
For Alta May Hulett, the law opened the legal profession to women, allowing each to practice law. In 1873, Ms. Hulett was required to take the bar for a second time and passed the examination with the highest score to date. At 19, Alta May Hulett became the first woman in Illinois admitted to the bar.
Hulett entered practice immediately in Chicago, earning the respect of the male-dominated bar as a strong advocate for her clients. Hulett's career was characterized as exceptional, and it was noted she never lost a jury trial. Hulett also was the first woman in Illinois to hold the office of Notary Public, and one of the first admitted to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Hulett's legal career was tragically cut short when she was diagnosed with pulmonary consumption (Tuberculosis of the lungs) in November of 1876. The illness forced her early retirement from law, and she moved to California, hoping a warmer climate would improve her health. Friends said that Hulett was heartbroken that she could no longer practice law and feared that men opposed to women lawyers would use her case as proof that women were too weak to practice law. Alta May Hulett died on March 26, 1877, before her 23rd birthday. Alta May Hulett is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, California.
Alta May Hulett opened the legal profession in Illinois, and throughout the United States, for all women. She fought to ensure women's equality during a time of great inequality. Another pioneering woman attorney, Grace Harte, wrote a tribute to Hulett, noting her devotion and dedication to women in the legal profession. Ms. Harte's tribute is as applicable today as it was in the past:
"Even among the latecomers in the law profession, her name and works are not the living force they are entitled to be. What she did for those that followed and are still unconsciously following in her footsteps is not fully appreciated, and the smooth path she has left for them to follow is taken as a matter of course."
The Chicago Bar Association established "The Alta May Hulett Award" in 1994. Named for the first woman lawyer in Illinois, it is presented to a woman who meets the criteria for the Founder's Award but has been qualified to practice law for fifteen years or less.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.