What Would Myra Do?

So, I chose the wrong time to start The Handmaid’s Tale.  Jesus.

I wanted to hide from my phone.  I knew that Brett Kavanaugh was going to be confirmed over the weekend, and I wanted to think about other things.  I stayed in, I knitted, and I watched episodes of Handmaid.  I emerged from my basement on Monday morning unsure of what year it was.  Where am I, again? The black and white past?  The red and white future?  Oh, no.  It’s just the dystopian present.  Goddamn.

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I can’t stop thinking about the episode where all the women are sent home from work because a law has been passed making illegal for them to have jobs or bank accounts.  They decide to protest but discover it is too late; the moment to take a stand slipped by and they have been slowly “boiled to death in their bathtubs,” as June says.

It is so disturbing to think about. Where is all the progress that I thought women had made since 1991?  There another credibly accused creep on the SCOTUS and a majority of Republicans polled said they supported the nominee even if the allegations against him were proved true. And now I’m reading that proposed restrictions to demonstrations at the White House and places on the National Mall are being considered.  I don’t want to sound like an alarmist crazy person, but keep protesting while they let you.  Watch the Handmaid’s Tale to see why I’m feeling urgency.

Last week, before I realized that the FDA investigation was a complete fraud, I kept thinking about Myra Bradwell, and wondering what she would think about all of this nuttiness.  You’ve probably never heard of her, so here is a brief summary of her badass life.

Myra Colby was born in Vermont in 1831.  After she completed her formal education at the age of 24, she became a school teacher.  In 1852, Myra married a law student named James B. Bradwell.  In 1855, they moved to Illinois where was admitted to the Chicago Bar and became a successful lawyer and judge.  Myra was also interested in the law, but women were prohibited from attending law school.  Instead, she studied under her husband and apprenticed in his law practice.  She was quoted in the Chicago Tribune in 1889, saying:

“I acquired the idea [of studying law] from helping my husband in his office. I was always with him, helping in whatever way I could.… I believe that married people should share the same toil and the same interests and be separated in no way. It is the separation of interests and labor that develops people in opposite directions and makes them grow apart. If they worked side by side and thought side by side we would need no divorce courts.”

Maybe it is because I have always had boring jobs, but that seems like a terrible idea to me.  If people don’t go off and do their own thing all day, then what do they talk about at night?  “Oh, one of my co-workers made me so mad today…”

“I know.  It was me.”

“Oh yeah! That was you! Did anything happen to you when you got out of my sight today?”

“In the men’s room? Not really.”

Then the sad couple would just go back to eating their peas in silence, I imagine.  Until one of them would say, “I can’t stand it! I’m going for a walk.  Maybe I’ll get lucky and be chased by a bear. I’ll tell you about it when I get back…”

Anyway, Myra put her private studies on hold when the Civil War broke out.  She went to work for charities that raised money for sick and wounded Union soldiers.  She eventually became the president of the Chicago Soldiers’ Aid Society. After the war she went back to her studies and in 1869 she passed the Illinois bar exam with high honors.  She applied for a law license, but the Illinois State Supreme Court denied her application because, as a married woman, she could not lawfully enter into any legal contracts, which would be necessary for a practicing lawyer.

Myra continued to fight her case and appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1873, but the lower court’s decision was upheld. It was the opinion of the highest court in the land that the 14th Amendment (equal protection) did not provide women with the right to practice a profession.

Furthermore, in the opinion of Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley, “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many occupations of civil life….The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign office of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”

So that was some bullshit, obviously.  Myra Bradwell made no more attempts to gain her law license after that, but managed to stay busy.  She helped to write the Illinois Married Women’s Property Act of 1861 and the Earnings Act of 1869, allowing married women gain control of their personal wealth.  In 1968, she founded the Chicago Legal News.  (Actually, she had to get her husband’s help to persuade the Illinois legislature to pass a special law so that she could edit and manage her own newspaper.  They were really hung up on not letting married women work.)  In time, it became the most widely read legal newspaper in the United States.  The paper was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, but Myra rebuilt it and carried on.

Myra Bradwell was also a well-known suffragette.  She helped (along with Lucy Stone and others) to form the American Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869.  Myra insisted that equality for women was a non-partisan issue and  fought to help women in other states attempting to study law and become lawyers.

In 1879, an anti-discrimination bill to allow women to practice in federal courts was passed and signed into law by President Rutherford B. Hayes.  Though Myra Bradwell did not re-apply for her license, the Illinois State Supreme Court, acting on its own motion, approved the original application.  (Feel a little guilty, there, Illinois?) It was the year 1890, 21 years after she had applied and four years before Myra Bradwell died of cancer in 1894.

Myra Colby Bradwell first popped into my head when Lindsey Graham histrionically asked, “What am I supposed to do, go ahead and ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation?”

Really?  I thought.  Tell that to Myra!  Not getting your dream job is only “ruinous” to privileged and entitled people who are used to getting what they want. Many people have been denied the opportunity to pursue careers and interests for countless unfair reasons.  And some people, like Myra Bradwell, still found ways to kick ass.  One might even say, “she persisted.”

I wish I were writing this in a snarky way to “Judge Kavanagh,” after a failed vote left him off the highest court.  “Take heart, little bean sprout,” I might have said.  “Let Myra by your inspiration to rise above!”

But it didn’t go that way.  Justice Kavanagh, to the manor born, has achieved his dreams despite all the credible accusations and his own disgraceful display in the final hearing.  No snark for me.  Not this week.

Instead, I’m still focused on Myra Bradwell because she reminds me that things have been worse.  Yes, thing have not progressed as far as I wanted to believe.  And maybe we have done some backsliding.  But I don’t believe we have passed the point of no return.  We are not yet Marthas and Handmaids to the end of democracy.  Myra took her defeat, but then kept writing and working and pushing other women around her to achieve their own goals, and things got better.  Not on its own, but because of the work of the people like Myra Colby Bradwell.

Defeat sucks, but it isn’t final.  Justice Kavanagh may be on the court for forty years (God help us), but not forever.  Damage will be done.  Meanwhile, we will keep writing and working and encouraging one another.  Take heart, dear sprouts!  We will persist!

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About Rachel Lewis

I am a writer, ceramic artist, knitter, and new stepparent. As a playwright, I had six short plays produced in showcases and festivals in Manhattan, Salt Lake City, and Austin. My full-length play, Locking Doors, was presented by Wordsmith Theatre Company in The New Lab Theatre (University of Utah) in 2005. I co-wrote a teleplay titled “Thank God I’m Atheist” which won the 2015 “No God But Funny” contest founded by the Center for Inquiry. My short nonfiction essay, “It’s Coming Down,” was published by the online literary magazine Halfway Down the Stairs. I currently work in pharmaceuticals professionally and write recreationally, but dream of making the transition to write professionally and do pharmaceuticals recreationally. I am a Utah native and live in Salt Lake City with my Yorkshire terrier, Wensleydale Doggiepants. I am working on a collection of humorous non-fiction essays and a second full-length play. Follow me at: rachelclewis.com @rachel_lewis_ut (Twitter) @rachel_lewis_ut (Instagram)

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