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Before Martha Dorsett could become Minnesota’s first female attorney, she had to get the law changed

Martha Angle Dorsett pushed bills at the Legislature that opened up legal practice to all women.

historical photo of martha angle dorsett
Martha Angle Dorset at the time of her graduation from the University of Michigan, ca. 1875.
Martha Angle Dorsett is best known for being Minnesota’s first female lawyer. After being denied the right to practice law in Minnesota in 1876, she successfully petitioned the Minnesota legislature to change the state law governing attorney admissions. With the law amended to permit admission regardless of sex, Martha went on to practice law and remained active politically throughout the rest of her life in Minneapolis.

Born on April 2, 1851, in Randolph New York, Martha Angle eventually left the East Coast to attend the University of Michigan, graduating with a bachelor of philosophy degree in 1875. Afterward she enrolled in the Iowa College of Law (later Drake University Law School)—just five years after Ada Kepley became the first woman to graduate from any law school in the United States. Angle graduated from law school in 1876 and married her fellow Michigan and Iowa classmate Charles Dorsett the same year.

Angle — now Dorsett — entered the Iowa Bar and relocated to Minneapolis soon after. In 1876 both she and her husband petitioned Hennepin County for admission to practice law in Minnesota. Charles was admitted to practice, but Judge Young of Hennepin County’s Court of Common Pleas denied Martha’s application, citing the Minnesota statute regarding legal practice as prohibiting her entry. The law at the time read that “Any male person of the age of twenty-one years, of good moral character, and who possesses the requisite qualifications of learning and ability, is entitled to admission to practice in all the courts of this State.”

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Like many of the first female attorneys across the country, Dorsett then worked to change the language of the state law to allow for entry for all applicants regardless of sex. Three bills were introduced at her behest in the state legislature: two to remove any discriminatory language from the state statute regarding attorney licensure (one in the Senate, and another in the House), and another allowing just her to practice law in the event that the first bills did not pass.

Newspaper coverage regarding bills introduced at Dorsett’s request in the Minnesota legislature noted that debate on the bill was “half jocular” and hinted that passage of the broader bill, opening legal practice to all women in the state, was not guaranteed. Indeed, the broader bill, S.F. 12, failed twice in the House before successfully passing on February 27, 1877. Governor John Pillsbury signed it into law on March 1, 1877. Dorsett successfully entered the Hennepin County Bar in January of 1878, and officially became the first female attorney admitted to practice law in Minnesota.

Dorsett’s active civic life continued after her fight in the legislature. She practiced law briefly, then went on to co-own a printing press and catering business with her husband. Outside of her business activity she was an active member of the Minnesota suffragist community. She served on the boards of both the Political Equality Club of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association. She even fought for suffrage at the national level, serving as the vice-president at large of the American Women’s Suffrage Association in the 1880s. A statement by the Political Equality Club of Minneapolis after her death referenced Dorsett’s support for state suffrage, noting that she used her own printing press to make copies for the organizations. This involvement did have a downside: house fires at the Dorsett home tragically led to the loss of records for both the Political Equality Club as well as the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association.

In addition to running a business and her suffragist work, Dorsett served on the board of Martha Ripley‘s Maternity Hospital, raised five children, and was active in the Minnesota Prohibition Party, where her husband ran as the party candidate for Minnesota governor three times. Near the end of her life Dorsett became a Christian Science practitioner and passed away in March of 1918 at the age of sixty-six, just two years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.