Today in 1843, Mary Hall was born in Marlborough, Connecticut. Growing up on a farm in antebellum America, when high Victorian culture placed an increasingly stringent emphasis on female domesticity, made her perhaps one of the most unlikely candidates to defy gender norms and become the first woman in Connecticut to be admitted to the bar. However, Mary enjoyed support in pursuing her educational ambitions from an early age: Her father, Gustavus Hall, was a prosperous farmer who held strong convictions regarding women’s access to education and the ballot box, believing that women should have “equal chance to the employment of its blessings, as well as a share in the burden of our government.”
With her father’s full support, Mary graduated from Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts at the age of 23 and worked for years as a schoolteacher in the greater Boston area before a trip to Hartford in 1877 inspired her to pursue a more ambitious calling. There, while attending a convention on women’s suffrage, Hall heard attorney John Hooker — husband of prominent Hartford social reformer Isabella Beecher Hooker — give a speech about the limited property rights of married women. Hooker’s speech inspired Hall to study law for herself, which she immediately began under the tutelage of her brother Ezra, already a practicing lawyer.
When Ezra died suddenly in 1878, John Hooker himself decided to accept Mary as a student in his Hartford law office. Four years later, in May of 1882, Mary took the bold step of applying to be admitted to the Connecticut bar. Even though she passed her bar exam with flying colors, the Hartford County Bar Association deferred to the Connecticut Supreme Court on whether or not a female could be admitted as a practicing attorney. Hartford lawyer Thomas McManus represented Hall before the Court in the case In Re Hall, arguing that admitting Hall to the bar was in perfect keeping with women’s social status and aptitude — noting that women already served as teachers, preachers, medical practitioners, and even as executors and trustees over legal matters. The state Supreme Court ruled in Hall’s favor in July 1882, making her the first female attorney in Connecticut history. Two years later, she also became Connecticut’s first female notary.
Throughout her legal career — which spanned four decades — Hall specialized in handling property-related matters for women, and was a founding member of the Hartford Woman Suffrage Club. In 1920, she achieved her other lifelong dream when the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally granted women the right to vote.
“Mary Hall,” Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame
Gregg Mangan, “Mary Hall: Connecticut’s First Female Attorney,” connecticuthistory.org
Elizabeth Warren, “Mary Hall: Breaking the Legal Barrier,” Connecticut Explored