Mary Philbrook’s Life and Legacy
Mary Philbrook was born in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 1872. The daughter of a feminist and a lawyer, she only received formal education through high school, and a course in stenography. Mary became educated in the law only through a job with the firm of Russ and Oppenheimer, located in Hoboken, N.J., where she met James Minturn, who later became a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice. It was Minturn who encouraged Mary's interest in the law and made a motion for Mary to be admitted to the New Jersey Bar on February 20, 1894. Mary's petition for admittance rested on her rights as a citizen and the equal protection guarantees to citizens of the state. However, she was denied admission by the Court despite the fact that over 300 women were practicing attorneys in 30 other states.
In 1895, a bill was passed in New Jersey stating that "no person would be denied admission to examination for license to practice as an attorney..." and following another motion by Minturn, Mary was admitted to the New Jersey Bar on June 6, 1895. Subsequently, Mary became the first woman appointed to Chancery Court and the second to be a notary public. In 1906, Mary also became the first New Jersey woman to be admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.
After beginning to practice, Mary began a lecture series in which she endorsed "plain justice," upholding that women not receive any special treatment. She moved her practice to Newark and began working for Legal Aid, as well as championing such causes as child labor reform, extension of the probation system, a state reformatory for women, and separate juvenile courts. Her volunteerism even extended to taking in street children into her own home until she could find adequate placement for them. She participated in investigations into white slavery, leading to the passing of the Mann Act, while also fighting for the right to vote.
After 1919, however, Philbrook's focus became the complete emancipation of women, especially in New Jersey. She resigned from a position for the City of Newark in protest because she was being treated differently from the men, assigned only cases in family law, and not given the same desk or office space as other legal assistants in the office. During that period, women's rights made many advances, with the adoption of an international treaty by the Pan‐American states at Montevideo. The treaty included an equal rights provision, and with the 1937 League of Nations Assembly, appointment of a committee to examine the legal status of women around the world. Mary then proceeded to organize several committees and write various petitions to amend the state constitution to include an equal rights provision and reword the preamble to affirm women's rights. Mary's final major triumph was the replacement of references to "men" in the New Jersey Constitution with references to "persons."
After prolonged illness, Mary Philbrook passed away on September 2, 1958. We should all be grateful for the many achievements she accomplished throughout her life.