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State of Oregon Law Library Legal Research Blog

Oregon’s First Woman Lawyer – the Mythic Mary Leonard

by Georgia Armitage on 2021-03-25T10:06:00-07:00 | Comments

Mary Leonard was the first woman lawyer in Oregon and in the Washington Territory. Furthermore, she did so as a Swiss immigrant and at a time when women lawyers were considered outlandish.

Defying Expectations -- First Woman Lawyer

For Leonard, like other women in the 1800s, "gaining the right to practice was a trial, often literally." [2]

At first, Leonard met with success. After studying law in Portland, she persuaded J.C. Haines of Struve, Haines, and McMicken in Seattle to teach her law -- an impressive feat since most women learned from a male family member.[3] In 1885, she passed the Washington Bar, becoming the first woman lawyer in the Washington Territory.[4] On March 27, 1885, Leonard joined the Federal Bar under the Federal Act of 1879.[5] Under the act, women could practice law before the United States Supreme Court.[6]

Admission to the Oregon bar proved difficult. The Oregon Supreme Court denied Leonard’s application, stating that, “this is the first application of the kind in this state that the court has any cognizance of, and it is very generally understood that women are disqualified from holding such positions.” The court went on to say that until the legislative assembly passed a bill granting women the right to practice law, it could not admit Leonard to the bar.[7]

Within the year, Leonard began advocating for women's right to practice law. Senator J.M. Siglin of Coos and Curry counties brought a bill allowing women to practice before the Oregon legislature. It passed.[5]

Leonard applied for the Oregon bar again, but this time the court denied her application because she was missing the residency requirement. Undeterred, Leonard argued her case before the court. She demonstrated that the court had unfairly enforced the residency requirement -- they had allowed men to enter the bar who did not meet the requirement. She won and became the first woman lawyer in Oregon in 1886.[8]

Legendary Divorce

Leonard's determination to be heard and her defiance of expectations appeared long before her law career. After migrating to Portland, Oregon in her 20s, Leonard married Daniel Leonard in 1875.[8][9] 

The marriage proved intolerable -- according to Leonard, Daniel was abusive. Daniel claimed Leonard was a thief, adulteress, and abuser.[10] The two decided to divorce in 1877. While the case proceeded, the judge ordered Daniel to pay for Leonard’s support. But Daniel refused, driving Leonard to write him a furious letter.[8]

Before the divorce was finalized, someone shot Daniel. Although he lived almost two weeks afterward, he never told anyone who shot him. Daniel’s attorney accused Leonard and her suspected lover.[5]

Leonard remained in jail for almost a year awaiting trial.[4] After 11 months, the District Attorney further delayed the trial, prompting a scathing newspaper article from Abigail Scott Duniway.: "This woman has been in jail since last February awaiting her trial on evidence purely circumstantial, for the murder of her husband [...] while one man at least under lik- [sic] indictment has been allowed liberty preceding his trial and a quick decision in his favor."[12] Shortly afterward, Leonard's trial began.[13]

The jury pronounced Leonard innocent at the trial. The evidence was mostly circumstantial.[14] Leonard had an excellent lawyer.[5] Furthermore, the community disliked Daniel.[4]

Despite Leonard's acquittal, the trial followed her throughout her career -- appearing in news articles and even generating an urban legend of sorts.[15] The legend claims that Leonard had been kidnapped from Italy at age 16, abused by the captain, and then accused when he was murdered![16]

Leonard the Lawyer

As Leonard began her legal practice nearly a decade later, she likely remembered her own experiences with her husband the law and advertised free help for women in the New Northwest. Despite her interest, she worked almost entirely in the police courts.[17]

Her legal career was often detailed in the news when scandal or drama was involved. Over the course of one case, Leonard encouraged perjury, embezzled money from her client’s mother, and then declined to pay the fine for embezzlement.[14] The judge jailed her, but Leonard was not cowed. After being released, Leonard stated, “I think my release on a writ of habeas corpus saved my life and maybe [the judge’s life].”[18]

Another time, a landlord attempted to evict Leonard. Leonard did not take this well, and she returned to the premises with a “toy pistol." At her trial for threatening the landlord, Leonard testified about not only the case at hand, but also about a variety of unrelated grudges. According to the Morning Oregonian, when Leonard’s lawyers interrupted her testimony, she would continue her story, but “a little further back than where she left off.” In the end, the judge ordered Leonard to pay a $100 peace bond.[19]

Around 1906, she took on a case representing an alcoholic man – Anthony G. Ryan. Mary worked on the case for years, but she lost. Within a year of losing the case, Leonard died at the Multnomah County Hospital on October 11, 1912.[14]

As one researcher puts it, "while it is clear that she [Leonard] became somewhat irrational and incompetent as an attorney near the end, during most of her final years, she merely acted as a zealous advocate, a role some historians seem to have difficulty imagining a woman performing well."[20] Leonard was not the only stubborn lawyer -- during the same period, a Multnomah Circuit Court judge's antics earned him public admiration.[21][22] The same defiance that brought her legal trouble, also made it possible for her to become a lawyer in the first place. 

Paving the Way for Change

Leonard’s outspokenness paved the way for other women lawyers in Oregon. Recognizing Leonard's achievements, the Mid-Willamette Valley chapter of Oregon Women Lawyers changed their name to the Oregon Women Lawyers Mary Leonard Chapter in 2016.

Women lawyers were a small, but close community. Publications from as far away as Massachusetts, Michigan, and Illinois mention Leonard alongside other women lawyers. Like Leonard, many of these women struggled to enter the bar. They argued for their right to practice before state and federal courts. If that failed, like Leonard, they pushed to change their states’ laws so that women could practice.[23]

Leonard had the courage to tell the world that she was real. She demanded that those around her hear her voice and listen. Learn more about women lawyers this Women's History Month, with a peek at our collection highlights

Image Credit:

Church, Frederick Stuart. The Great Sea Serpent. Bequest of Erskine Hewitt. Print, 1878. Smithsonian Design Museum. Last accessed March 22, 2021. https://www.si.edu/.

Works Cited

[1] Lelia Robinson, "Women Lawyers in the United States," The Green Bag 2 (1890): 10, Women's Legal History Biography Project, Stanford Law School and Robert Crown Law Library, last accessed March 22, 2021.

[2] Julia Steele, "'All the allies of each': Lelia’s Robinson’s portrait of early women lawyers in America," (1998) Women's Legal History Biography Project, Stanford Law School and Robert Crown Law Library, last accessed March 22, 2021, 4.

[3] Steele 5.

[4] Oregon Women Lawyers Mary Leonard Chapter, "Mary Leonard, 1845 - October 24, 1912," Oregon Women Lawyers Mary Leonard Chapter, last accessed March 22, 2020, https://www.owlsmaryleonardchapter.org/.

[5] Katherine H. O'Neil, "Rough Justice: The Life and Times of Oregon's First Woman Lawyer, Mary Gysin Leonard," Oregon State Bar Bulletin (October 1994), Westlaw Edge.

[6] United States Congress, "Chap 81 -- An act to remove certain legal disabilities of women," in Statutes at Large, 45th Cong., 3rd Sess. (1879), 292, https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/45th-congress/session-3/c45s3ch81.pdf.

[7] In re Leonard’s Application, 12 Or. 93 (1885), Caselaw Access Project, https://cite.case.law/or/12/93/.

[8] Tiffany Hamilton, "Mary Gysin Leonard (1845?-1912)," Oregon Encyclopedia, last modified May 29, 2021, https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/. 

[9] Kerry Abrams, "Folk Hero, Hell Riser, Lady Lawyer: What is the Truth About Mary Leonard?" Women's Legal History Biography Project, Stanford Law School and Robert Crown Law Library, last accessed March 22, 2021, 4.

[10] Leonard v. Leonard, court file, quoted in Kerry Abrams, "Folk Hero, Hell Riser, Lady Lawyer: What is the Truth About Mary Leonard?" Women's Legal History Biography Project, Stanford Law School and Robert Crown Law Library, last accessed March 22, 2021, 7-8.

[11] State v. Leonard and Lindsay, court file, quoted in Kerry Abrams, "Folk Hero, Hell Riser, Lady Lawyer: What is the Truth About Mary Leonard?" Women's Legal History Biography Project, Stanford Law School and Robert Crown Law Library, last accessed March 22, 2021, 9-10.

[12] A. S. Duiniway, "Unwarrantable Jurisdiction," New Northwest, November 17, 1878, quoted in Kerry Abrams, "Folk Hero, Hell Riser, Lady Lawyer: What is the Truth About Mary Leonard?" Women's Legal History Biography Project, Stanford Law School and Robert Crown Law Library, last accessed March 22, 2021, 11-12.

[13] Abrams 12.

[14] Gayle Shirley, "Lioness of the Law Mary Leonard," Oregon State Bar Bulletin (August/September 2000), Westlaw Edge.

[15] Abrams 19, 2-3.

[16] Myna Aldrich, "Oregon's First Woman Lawyer," in With Her Own Wings, ed. Helen Krebs Smith (Portland: Beatty and Company, 1948), 206.

[17] Abrams 26.

[18] Evening Telegraph, December 3, 1898, quoted in Kerry Abrams, "Folk Hero, Hell Riser, Lady Lawyer: What is the Truth About Mary Leonard?" Women's Legal History Biography Project, Stanford Law School and Robert Crown Law Library, last accessed March 22, 2021, 29.

[19] "She Must Keep the Peace," Morning Oregonian, September 2, 1897, 8, Newsbank.

[20] Abrams 31.

[21] Hall S. Lusk, "On Judge Henry E. McGinn . . ." Oregon Historical Quarterly 73, no. 3 (1972): 269-72, last accessed March 25, 2021, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20613308.

[22] "Judge Henry E. McGinn, Who is a Believer in Justice and Foe of Red Tape and Precedent, Quits Circuit Bench," The Sunday Oregonian, December 31, 1916, 8, University of Oregon, Historic Oregon Newspapers.

[23] Steel 2-4.


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