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Helen Hamilton upends American Bar Association Convention in 1915

Hamilton, first female graduate of the UND School of Law, asked the ABA to be its first female member – and the rest is history

Clockwise from top left, these headlines from August 19, 1915, show how the Los Angeles Times, the Morning Echo of Bakersfield, Calif., the Nevada State Journal, the Brazil Daily Times of Brazil, Ind., and the Sioux City Journal of Sioux City, Iowa, treated the American Bar Association’s reaction to Helen Hamilton’s application for membership. All clippings are from Newspapers.com, an online newspaper archive.

On Wednesday of Convention Week in 1915, the lead-up to the American Bar Association’s national convention in Salt Lake City was still sedate. “May elect women to Bar Association,” the Salt Lake Telegram headlined on that day, informing readers about one debate that might unfold.

Unfold it did: “Application for membership causes lively session of lawyers’ society,” the Spokane Chronicle in Spokane, Wash., headlined the next day.

In fact, newspapers from the Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times by then were taking note, because a female attorney’s request for membership had prompted a “row” of words among ABA members. This blunt headline from Page 1 of the Aug. 19, 1915, edition of the Nevada State Journal tells the tale: “Uproar provoked when women termed as ‘undesirables.’”

And who was the woman whose mere application had provoked such a furious and nationally significant debate?

That would be Helen Hamilton, North Dakota’s first woman lawyer, and the first female graduate of the UND School of Law.

Since 1999, the UND School of Law has celebrated Helen Hamilton Day, in honor of the law school’s first female graduate. Hosted by the Law Women’s Caucus, a student organization, Helen Hamilton Day typically consists of three panel discussions over the course of the day. All are welcome to attend.

Civil rights pioneer

March is Women’s History Month, making this a great time to learn more about one of UND’s best known – and yet, least known; we’ll explain – female graduates.

It’s also appropriate because coming up on April 9 is Helen Hamilton Day at the UND School of Law. The annual event is sponsored by the Law Women’s Caucus at the School to celebrate Hamilton’s legacy. (This year’s program is below.)

Moreover, unlike the case with Cora Smith Eaton King, class of 1889 – “Physician. Surgeon. Teacher. Elocutionist. Mountaineer. Activist. Suffragist,” as a UND Today story described her last year – and Era Bell Thompson, who served as managing editor of Ebony magazine before being named to the North Dakota Rough Rider Hall of Fame, not much has been written about Hamilton, making her perhaps the least known of those best-known graduates.

For example, Hamilton’s Wikipedia biography is less than 100 words. It recounts the basic facts that come up again and again in Google searches of her name: born in 1874; graduated from the School of Law in 1905, was the president of – and the only female student in – her class; became North Dakota’s first female lawyer the same year; and practiced law in Grand Forks for decades before passing away in 1949.

In an effort to learn more, UND Today searched the Grand Forks Herald’s and other newspapers’ archives for details.

One resource we found is Hamilton’s Herald obituary. It is reprinted in full below.

The obituary adds to UND and the School of Law’s storehouse of knowledge about Hamilton. But it makes one important mistake: it claims that Hamilton was “the first woman attorney in the United States to be admitted to the American Bar Association.”

That’s not correct. The first female lawyers to be admitted to the ABA were Mary Belle Grossman and Mary Florence Lathrop, who joined the Association in 1918.

But Hamilton’s story is just as interesting, because she and another woman (whose name is not in the press accounts) very likely were the first women to have applied for membership in the ABA. And they did this in 1915, three years before Grossman and Lathrop submitted their applications.

In other words, Helen Hamilton, UND School of Law Class of 1905, paved the way. Her application to the ABA was rejected in 1915, as we’ll describe. But when Grossman and Lathrop applied three years later, their applications were approved unanimously.

Perhaps that’s because Hamilton and her colleague – like the suffragists who were their contemporaries, and like other civil-rights pioneers, then and since – had absorbed the brunt of their opponents’ shock and rancor, thus letting the air out of the opposition’s balloon.

The theme of this year’s Helen Hamilton Day is ‘Empowered women.’ To register and for more information about the April 9 event, click on the above program to visit the Helen Hamilton Day event listing on the UND Calendar.

‘The woman question’

“Barristers divided on the woman question,” the Los Angeles Times headlined its story on Aug. 19, 1915.

You bet they were, echoed the Salt Lake Herald Republican, describing the General Council meeting that would advance resolutions to the convention’s floor:

“The general council had one of the stormiest sessions in the history of the association yesterday when Miss Helen Hamilton of Grand Fork (sic), S.D. (sic), was proposed for membership in the association. Heretofore there had been an unwritten law that women should not be members, but the council voted to admit Miss Hamilton to membership.”

The “Associated Press Night Wire” reported the same story this way:

“SALT LAKE (Utah), Aug. 18 – The question of admitting women attorneys to membership in the American Bar Association created a lively session of the association’s general council today and may be threshed out on the floor tomorrow.

“The applicant is Miss Helen Hamilton of Grand Forks, N.D. The council agreed by a vote of 37 to 8 to recommend the application, following the report of a special committee that no agreement had been reached regarding the application of Miss Hamilton and one other woman applicant.”

But after that vote, the AP story continued, “a question of procedure arose, in the course of which a resolution was proposed denying admission to women as ‘undesirable.’ The resolution provoked an uproar and was not seconded.

“A motion to adjourn was lost by a vote, and efforts were made to lay the matter over until tomorrow.

“ ‘It seems as though we are trying to dodge the matter,’ shouted the delegate.

“ ‘We are always dodging the women,’ commented George T. Page of Peoria, president of the council.”

In fact, the Association continued its dodge, the next day and beyond. Here’s the Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, Aug. 19, 1915, reporting on the fate of Helen Hamilton’s application:

“The general council had before it the question of admitting women attorneys to membership. It had previously voted to recommend the admission to membership of Miss Helen Hamilton of Grand Forks, N.D., but this matter was put over yesterday until next year.

“Not much opposition to the delay was voiced. An attempt was made at the association to bring the matter up through a motion by Judge Jacob Thiebar of Little Rock, Ark., that women be admitted to membership, but at the suggestion of Judge Andrew A. Bruce of Bismarck, N.D., the matter was referred to the Committee on Reorganization, with instructions to report next year.”

If the committee ever issued its report, that news didn’t make the press accounts of the Association’s conventions in 1916 or 1917, as far as we could determine. Not until 1918 did the topic come up again, when, as mentioned, the American Bar Association accepted two women as members.

By the way, when word of Hamilton’s rejection made its way back to North Dakota, the editors of the Washburn Leader in Washburn, N.D., responded with this tongue-in-cheek note:

On Friday, Sept. 3, 1915, the Washburn Leader of Washburn, N.D., extended the above invitation to Helen Hamilton, attorney in Grand Forks. Newspapers.com clipping.

Helen Hamilton was listed as a member of the ABA in 1925. She practiced law in Grand Forks for 43 years.

In 1950, after her death, the North Dakota Law Review published Hamilton’s obituary. Most of the information in that account came from the Grand Forks Herald obituary, which is below.

But the North Dakota Law Review added these words:

“A modest, humble, and self-effacing woman, she did her legal work well, and at times, brilliantly, and took her place and played her part in the community where she lived. She made a profound impression upon the members of the Grand Forks Bar and those with whom she came in contact during her lifetime. She was a real credit to the legal profession of this State.”

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Obituary of Helen Hamilton as printed in the Grand Forks Herald, Oct. 1, 1949:

Woman attorney dies here

The Grand Forks Herald carried this obituary of Helen Hamilton on Saturday, Oct. 1, 1949. Grand Forks Public Library microfilm scan.

Miss Helen N. Hamilton, 75, pioneer resident of Grand Forks and the first woman attorney in the United States to be admitted to the to the American Bar Association, died early Friday morning at her home, 504½ Reeves Dr.

Miss Hamilton had been deputy clerk of United States District Court at Grand Forks for about 53 years, according to Miss Beatrice McMichael, clerk of federal court, at Fargo.

Beginning the practice of law in Grand Forks in 1905, Miss Hamilton had been connected with the firms of Bangs, Netcher and Hamilton; Bangs, Cooley and Hamilton; and Bangs, Hamilton and Bangs. She retired from active practice about a year and a half ago. She had been in failing health for a number of years.

Funeral services have been set tentatively for 10:30 a.m. Monday in the Federated church with Rev. Homer Harrington officiating.

Survivors are three cousins, Mrs. Florence W. Moorhead of Minneapolis, Mrs. Roy M. Zehn of Chicago, and Doris B. LaVayea of Los Angeles.

Came in 1878

The daughter of one of Grand Forks’ pioneer attorneys, Major John G. Hamilton, Miss Hamilton came to Grand Forks with her parents in September of 1878, and lived here until her death.

She was born in Lexington, Ky., January 3, 1874, and went with her parents two years later to the Sisseton, S.D., Indian reservation. She came to Grand Forks from there.

Her early education was received in the public schools of this city, and she studied law at the University, graduating in 1905, the first woman to receive a law degree at that institution.

She went into practice with the firm of Bangs, Netcher and Hamilton. She was appointed deputy clerk of the federal district court by Judge C.M. Thomas and was continued in that post by Judges Charles J. Amidon, Andrew Miller and C.J. Vogel.

Miss Hamilton was active in veteran and patriotic groups practically all her adult life. She was a charter member of the auxiliary of the United Spanish War Veterans, and the Grand Forks post of the veterans organization was named for her brother, Harry H. Hamilton.

Served Patriotic Groups

She served two terms as president of the state auxiliary of that organization in 1936 and 1937. She was also a member of the American Legion auxiliary and the Veterans of Foreign Wars auxiliary.

A charter member of the Business and Professional Women’s Club in Grand Forks, she served as state head of that organization. She was secretary of the Memorial Park Cemetery association, and as such was a member of the American Cemetery association. Miss Hamilton was a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and the state and national bar associations.