Thursday, March 30, 2006

Pittsburgh's First Woman Lawyer


"Miss Agnes Fraser Watson's marriage Thursday evening to Herbert Lee Stitt of Pittsburgh, which took place at her mother's residence on Locust Street, Allegheny, was a pretty little ceremony, witnessed by about 50 guests and solemnized by Rev. Henry D. Lindsay, pastor of the North Presbyterian Church. There were but a two flower children in attendance, little Helen Barnes, a niece of the groom, and Harold Watson, a small nephew of the bride. The floral decorations were exceedingly handsome throughout the house. White azaleas, palms and maidenhair fern were used in the drawing room, white carnations in the dining room and all the other apartments were done in pink tulips and spring flowers. The bride wore a wedding gown of white pearl-tinted satin trimmed with duchess lace, in her hair she wore a white aigrette and plume, and she carried a bouquet of white carnations, her favorite flowers."

Sounds like it happened yesterday - but actually it was March 30, 1899, a very important event in the history of Pittsburgh lawyers. The groom was an inspector for the Schoen Pressed Steel Company in Blairsville and the bride . . . was the first woman to enter the bar in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

Agnes Fraser Watson, born in Pittsburgh in September 1866 to a Scottish immigrant and his second wife. Agnes lost her father when she was 10, whereupon she and her brother became wards of John Hood. When Agnes was still a toddler, the newspapers headlines were full of the trials and tribulations of pioneers like Myra Bradwell and Arabella Mansfield, the first woman lawyers in the U.S. In 1886, Carrie Kilgore of Philadelphia became the first woman lawyer in Pennsylvania, but only after the same kind of protracted litigation to secure the right of women to practice, that Myra Bradwell and Arabella Mansfield had gone through. Pittsburgh remained closed to all but white men, and there were still only handfuls of women lawyers throughout the U.S. around 1893 when Agnes entered the University of Michigan Law School, one of the earliest law schools in the nation to support the education of women as lawyers.

The buzz around Pittsburgh started slowly, but the press saw Agnes coming. She quietly applied to take the bar exam in the fall of 1895, and was accepted for the exam by N.W. Shafer of the examination board. He was a free thinker and a curmudgeon, and he knew the law was on women's side after the Kilgore case, even if the gentlemen of the Pittsburgh Bar weren't ready for Miss Watson.

The Pittsburgh Post headline on September 14, 1895 was simply "Miss Watson Passes." Out of 26 applicants, only 10 passed the Bar exam -- nine young men and 29-year old Agnes Fraser Watson. "The Plucky Western Girl," as the papers called her, showed them and passed the test.

Now what would happen at the swearing-in ceremony?

The Post reported: "Miss Agnes F. Watson, the first woman who has ever passed the final examination for admission to the Allegheny County bar, was admitted to practice in the various courts of the county yesterday … in Common Pleas No. 1, the nine young men were sworn in first, and then Miss Watson was called up. Mr. Shafer moved for her admission."

Judge Edwin Stowe leaned forward over the bench to study Miss Watson. "Mr. Shafer," he inquired, "has the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided the right of women to be admitted to practice?"

"Why, yes Your Honor," said Mr. Shafer, "it had been decided in the case of Miss Kilgore of Philadelphia."

Judge Stowe sat back in his chair, his expression unchanged.

"I want to say if the Supreme Court had not decided the question, I would not consent to any women practicing law in this court. But if women want to practice law and ride bicycles, I suppose it is none of my business. Let her be sworn."

Women practicing law and riding bicycles. On the same day the Post announced Miss Watson's admission, in separate stories it reported that a woman postmistress was appointed at Kennon, Ohio, that it was decided that women would be allowed to attend the national conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, that women would now be admitted to the Catholic University of Washington, and among a few column inches of filler, the following statement: "A woman lawyer is a woman still, and when the right petitioner comes to court with a good case he will get a favorable decision." Something rather obvious that someone felt needed to be said.

Agnes Watson set up her office at 413 Fourth Avenue downtown, and as far as we know, she practiced by herself for a little over 3 years. Sadly, we know nothing of the details of her practice. All we know for sure is that a few weeks before her pretty wedding to Herbert Stitt on Locust Street in Allegheny, she closed the doors of her practice; and as the papers reported it, following the wedding, she spent weekdays in Blairsville and took carriage rides back to Allegheny on Saturdays to be with her mother, and "all her interests were devoted to homemaking." After 1899, Miss Watson, then Mrs. Stitt, disappears from the stage of history. Did she have children? Did she ever return to professional life? We just don't know, not yet. It appears that by 1930, though, she and her husband were living in the Edgewood, a suburb of Pittsburgh.

In a little over 3 years, her career as a Pittsburgh lawyer was over. By the time the next woman was admitted to the Bar in Allegheny County in 1900, Agnes Watson had already retired.

See The Steel Bar: Pittsburgh Lawyers and the Making of Modern America.

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