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The Birth of Legal Aid: Gender Ideologies, Women, and the Bar in New York City, 1863-1910
Law and History Review (2010)
  • Felice J Batlan, Chicago-Kent College of Law
This article provides a case study and an in-depth analysis of the WWPU. It then discusses how by the turn of the century, when the Society became the dominant provider of legal aid in New York City, women’s roles as legal providers and recipients of legal aid was even further expanded. By doing so, I demonstrate that gender was foundational to the development of legal aid and that women played crucial roles as lawyers, benefactors, and clients. Although this article focuses on New York, legal aid organizations in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia also first arose to provide free legal services to women and such aid often was provided by other women.
Significantly, however, the article is not just about women but also the central role that gender ideologies played in the creation of legal aid. Gender dictated who would be the beneficiaries of legal aid, how lawyers constructed legal claims, what claims would be taken, who provided legal aid, and how legal aid reflected back upon the image of the legal profession. The story of the development and work of the WWPU is multicausal and demonstrates how legal aid was shaped by shifting gender ideologies and their intersection with the nascent labor movement, understandings of wage labor, new ideas about philanthropy, and the changing nature and composition of the legal profession.
In the first part, I discuss the founding of the WWPU, situating its origins in a failed attempt by women to establish a labor union for women workers. Then I analyze how gender shaped the WWPU’s work, the portrayal of its clients, adversaries, and practice, and the interactions between elite male attorneys and the WWPU. Also explored is how women without formal legal training, and at a time when women could not be admitted to the New York Bar, vote, or even sit on juries, provided much of the legal advice and conducted the majority of the work of the WWPU. With this background, the final part of the article examines the New York Legal Aid Society, where I argue that the Society consciously sought to differentiate itself from the WWPU and present a more professional and masculine image. At the same time, however, and due to material conditions, including perpetual financial problems, the needs of poor women, and a new cadre of professionally trained women lawyers, the provision of legal aid continued to be deeply feminized.
Publication Date
Citation Information
The Birth of Legal Aid: Gender Ideologies, Women, and the Bar in New York City, 1863-1910, 28 Law and History Review 931 (2010).