1853 : Elizabeth (Bessie) Jane Eaglesfield, First University of Michigan Woman Law Graduate

June 29, 2018 all-day

Image result for Elizabeth (Bessie) Jane Eaglesfield

Elizabeth (Bessie) Jane Eaglesfield was born June 29, 1853, in Clay County, Indiana. She was educated in the high school at Terre Haute, Ind., and would go on to win multiple degrees from the University of Michigan, including a law degree in 1878, making her the first female graduate from that program.

Moreover, Eaglesfield was Indiana’s first woman attorney and one of the first 15 women lawyers in the United States. She was admitted to the bar in 1875 under a Vigo Circuit Court order that established she was “of good moral character, a voter, and a resident of the state”, several years before she received her law degree from the University of Michigan. Despite the language in the court order, Eaglesfield and other Hoosier women could not vote in Indiana until 1920.

Once admitted to the bar, Eaglesfield practiced law in Brazil, Terre Haute, and Indianapolis before moving to Michigan to continue her practice.

Elizabeth Jane "Bessie" Eaglesfield is admitted to the Bar in 1875. - Misa Eaglesfield j haa been adniited to the bar...

She hung her shingle out in Grand Rapids in 1878, becoming the first female practicing attorney in the city’s history, and lived there the rest of her life, except for two years.

Unlike most early women law graduates, Eaglesfield did not confine her practice to the office and entered the world of litigation whenever she was allowed by clients. Records illustrate the attempts of this atypical woman attorney to cobble together a living as a guardian for minor children, a representative for widows in property disputes, and representing herself in real estate trades.

Eaglesfield also held captain’s papers for navigation on the Great Lakes and owned the steam ship the Golden Girl.  In fact, her steamship, the Golden Girl became ‘a fixture on the Lake Michigan horizon,’ according to contemporary sources.  In addition, before she retired from the lakes in the mid-1930s, Eaglesfield and her son owned five fruit boats. She had also become a Benton Harbor real estate mogul.

To the extent she could, Eaglesfield participated in the exciting world only offered to men and pioneered a path for women in her wake.

Sources :

Newspaper clipping from The Columbus Republican, 23 Sep 1875, Thu, Page 2

Female Firsts in the Legal Profession, State of Indiana

Elizabeth Eaglesfield biography from Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

Leave a Reply