1899 : Merrie Abbott, Michigan’s First Female County Prosecutor (Unofficially)

January 1, 2023 all-day

Ogemaw County voters elected Merrie Abbott County Prosecutor in 1898, but the Supreme Court removed her the following year in a bizarre turn of events. Abbott and her husband had been practicing law together in West Branch when she became the Democratic nominee and then narrowly won the seat by what a news account described as “a majority of four votes on a recount.” She “holds a very peculiar position,” the article said, “as she is the only woman in Michigan ever elected to a constitutional office, and the first to hold the office of County Prosecuting Attorney in the United States.”

It continued, “Her campaign only lasted three weeks, but she conducted it personally, speaking in all the public places throughout the county, and no amount of bad weather or wretched roads could prevent her filling engagements. While her platform was that of the party which nominated her, she added to it some planks of her own, one of which was conservatism on the woman’s suffrage question. Mrs. Abbott makes few intimate friends among women, as she has neglected the social set of West Branch and does not attend its functions. Among the womenkind the fact that she is a ‘lady practitioner’ is looked upon as a handicap.”

How some things have changed.

Abbott was “just old enough to vote,” the article noted, but couldn’t: That’s because gender proved the ultimate handicap, regardless of the will of the electorate. After she took office on January 1, 1899, Attorney General Horace Oren started legal proceedings to remove her because the state constitution allowed only “electors” to serve. The Supreme Court was all male, of course, and the 4-to-1 majority sided with Oren, saying, “The office of prosecuting attorney is a constitutional office which can only be held by one possessing the qualification of an elector.” Alas, women in Michigan wouldn’t win the right to vote until 1918.

The more open-minded dissenter, Justice Joseph Moore, labeled the decision “illogical” and observed that a woman could practice law and “represent her client in the most important litigation in all the courts, and no one can dispute her right. She may defend a person charged with murder. Can she not prosecute one charged with the larceny of a whip?”

At any rate, due to the Michigan Supreme Court decision saying that women could not serve in elected office, she was ousted on October 17, 1899.

Source : Eric Freedman, “Appearing for the People”, Dome, July 19, 2013.

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