Mary Florence Lathrop was born to a Quaker family in Philadelphia on December 10, 1865, just as slavery ended in the United States. Mary’s family were abolitionists but had not fought in the war. Her parents were free-thinking and believed women should have as many opportunities for education as men.
Mary became an investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Register by the age of nineteen. She posed as a worker in fabric mills in Pennsylvania, and documented horrific working conditions of children in the factories, bringing about reform in child labor laws. She loved writing and traveling and decided she would never marry.
Her editor sent her west, to cover the Indian Wars. She rode horses astride, almost like today’s “embedded” reporters, filing her stories over the telegraph to the delight of readers in the East. From San Francisco, she went to China and India, painting vivid word pictures for readers back home. During her Asian travels, she contracted pneumonia, which led to tuberculosis. At the time, a mountain climate was thought to be a cure for the disease. Mary moved with her mother to Denver and enrolled at the University of Denver to study law. Her male classmates shook their heads and laughed, not expecting her to survive.
Mary may have been small, at five feet and one hundred pounds, but there was nothing small about her intellect or her drive and determination. She graduated in 1896 magna cum laude and passed the bar exam with a score of 96/100, a record that stood until 1941. Her male colleagues still disbelieved her abilities and took bets that within six months she would take down her shingle in defeat.
In a newspaper interview for United Press in 1936, Mary said, ” I couldn’t recommend a young woman to take up law unless you’re ready for a fight. A boy might make it just by being average, but a girl needs to know much more than a boy to succeed. Those first ten years were hell, made so by men who were later removed from the profession. It took me ten years to live down being a woman.” Mary specialized in probate law and was the first woman admitted to the Colorado Bar, to practice in federal district court, and to practice before the U. S. Supreme Court. Her contributions in the law concerning guardianship of children, and inheritance law led to the University of Denver conferring on her an honorary doctorate of law.
Mary thought women possessed an advantage in probate law with rich male clients. “If a rich man dies, I don’t allow the family to go through his papers and letters – I do it myself. He may have written an innocent puppy love letter twenty years ago, and ten women will pop up claiming to be the subject of the letter, and claim an interest in the estate. A woman is wise to such schemes, and will ferret them out.”
She was still practicing at age 75. In October 1951, her respiratory problems returned, and she died. She was posthumously inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.