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Emma M. Gillett
Emma Millinda Gillett was born to Wisconsin homesteaders on July 30, 1852. Her father was English and her mother was a Pennsylvania Quaker. Following her father's death in 1854, Gillett moved with her mother to Pennsylvania where she was raised by her mother's family. In 1870, Gillett graduated from Lake Erie Seminary in Painesville, Ohio, an all-female seminary primarily concerned with training women to be teachers. Following graduation, Gillett taught for ten years in the Pennsylvania public schools. During this time she became increasingly frustrated with the meager wages that were paid to single women teachers.
Gillett became interested in studying law in the late 1870's, sparked by her role in the settlement of her mother's estate and by her desire for a profession that paid more than teaching. Gillett also appeared to have been inspired by the example of Belva Lockwood, who had gained national attention in the late 1870's through her efforts to join the Supreme Court bar.
Relying upon savings and a small inheritance from her mother's estate, in 1880 Gillett moved to Washington, D.C. to study law. By the time she tried to enroll at the National University, it had closed it's doors to women. Lockwood, due to her dedication to women and law, assisted Gillett by giving her a temporarily home. She also studied pension law as an apprentice in Lockwood's law office until she was admitted to Howard Law School. Gillett was one of two white women students at Howard Law in the early 1880s. In 1881, President Garfield appointed Gillett to be the first female notary public in the United States. In 1882, Gillett graduated from Howard, receiving an LL.B. She subsequently received an LL.M. from Howard in 1883. Gillett became a member of the Washington bar in June 1883 by passing the written bar exam and was admitted to practice in the supreme court of the District of Columbia.
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Upon graduation from Howard, Gillett joined the law office of a Washington attorney, Watson J. Newton, working as an associate. Newton later served as a teacher at and trustee of, WCL. Gillett met Newton through her work as a notary public. She served as Newton's associate for eighteen years before forming a law partnership with him in 1900. Like Mussey, Gillett did not practice conventionally female legal specialties. Instead, she had a profitable practice in real estate and pension law, making three to four times her earnings as a teacher. She neither married nor had children.
Gillett became the seventh woman member of the Supreme Court bar in 1890. Her membership was sponsored by Ada M. Bittenbender, the third woman to have joined the Supreme Court's bar. As such, Gillett was the first woman to be admitted to the Supreme Court bar on the motion of another woman. Gillett did not argue any cases in the Supreme Court and sponsored only one woman's membership in its bar.
In 1890, Gillett founded the Wimodaughsis, an all-women's club committed to "helping younger working women further their education." Gillett also became interested in politics on behalf of women's rights at this time. For example, her Equity Club letters reveal her growing concern about married women's property rights. In 1893, Gillett drafted an unsuccessful married woman's property legislation for the District of Columbia. She worked with Mussey and Lockwood on subsequent married women's property legislation, which was enacted in 1896, the same year that Mussey founded the Woman's Law Class with Gillett as her co-teacher. As for why Mussey insisted upon Gillett as her co-teacher in founding the Woman's Law Class, it is clear that the two women must have been familiar with each other's work since they were two of only a handful of women attorneys in Washington at this time and had worked together on the married women's property legislation of 1896. Additionally, Mussey may have come to know Gillett because Mussey was friendly with Newton, Gillett's colleague and Mussey's husband taught at Howard Law School at approximately the same time that Gillett was a student there.
Mussey and Gillet formalized the Woman's Law Class when they opened the "Washington College of Law" in 1898. Mussey held the role of dean while Gillett was responsible for the administrative work. When Mussey's heath began to decline, Gillett took over as dean. She remained dean until her retirement in 1923.
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Gillett died on January 23, 1927, after contracting pneumonia while confined to her bed due to breaking her hip the previous October.
Other positions Gillett held:
- Chairman of the Legal Branch of the national Woman's Party
- Vice President and Treasurer of the Realty Appraisal and Title Company, 1908-1913
- Examiner in Chancery
- President of Women's Bar Association (1921)
- Vice President of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Bar Association (1922)
- Gillett's biography is taken from:
Mary L. Clark, The Founding of the Washington College of Law: The First Law School Established By Women For Women, American University Law Review, Feb. 1998, Vol. 47, Num 3, pg 613. Also found at: http://www.stanford.edu/group/WLHP/articles/gender.pdf.
- Virginia G. Drachman, Women Lawyers and the Origins of Professional Identity in America, The Letters of the Equity Club, 1887-1890, The University of Michigan Press, 1993. pp. 58, 96, 222-224, 244-245,