In 1871, Sarah Killgore became the University of Michigan’s first woman law student and graduate. She was also the first woman to be admitted to the State Bar of Michigan, or to the Bar of any state in the United States for that matter.
In 1875, Sarah Killgore married an attorney, Jackson S. Wertman, and the couple moved to Indiana and opened a joint practice. However, Killgore had to content herself with office tasks because the statutes of Indiana at that time required for admission to the Bar, “Male citizens of good moral character.”1 Although she had been able to obtain a law degree, she was still prevented from practicing in a court of law because of her sex.
Years later, Sarah Killgore joined the first national organization of women lawyers in American history, the Equity Club. The Equity Club began with a small group of women at her alma mater, the University of Michigan. It soon developed into a nationwide correspondence club for all women involved in the legal profession. The Equity Club provided women lawyers and law students with a way to transcend the geographic distance that separated them and to build a community of women with similar professional interests and concerns. In their letters to each other, the Equity Club members grappled with the professional identity of women lawyers and how to strike a balance between their femininity and their professional roles.
In a letter to the members of the Equity Club on May 7, 1888, Sarah Killgore wrote, “Woman’s place in the practice of law, as elsewhere, is not such much to bring to it wisdom and justice, as the purifying graces, — lifting the profession to higher and nobler purposes.”2 She believed that women lawyers should emphasize their femininity and alleged inherent moral superiority in order to uplift the legal profession. As one of the first woman lawyers in the nation, Sarah Killgore did not question or fight against gender stereotypes, but rather she embraced and embodied the Victorian lady ideal of the day, while practicing law.
1 Sarah Killgore, Necrology File. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
2 Drachman, Virginia. Women Lawyers and the Origins of Professional Identity in America: the Letters of the Equity Club, 1887 to 1890. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. 138.