Mary Florence Lathrop (1865-1951) was born December 10, 1865, in Philadelphia, just as slavery was ending in the United States. Her Quaker family had not participated in the war, beyond supporting abolition. She grew up in a free thinking household, that promoted education and achievement for women, and women’s rights.
When Mary reached nineteen, she determined that she would never marry, and instead pursue her dreams in journalism and law. At five feet tall and only one hundred pounds, men tended to underestimate her – but there was nothing small about her intellect or determination. She became a reporter for the Philadelphia Press, traveling the world to champion laws limiting and improving child labor. She investigated Pennsylvania fabric mills and exposed the terrible conditions that children tolerated. Her editor sent her to the West, to cover the Indian Wars, filing articles by telegraph and riding into battles like today’s “embedded” reporters. While in Asia, she contracted tuberculosis. At that time, a mountain climate was thought to be a cure for the disease, and she moved to Denver to study law. Her professors and fellow students laughed and thought a woman studying law was ridiculous. When she passed the Colorado Bar Exam in 1896 with a record score of 96/100, they still shook their heads and gave her six months before they thought she would take down her shingle in defeat. Her bar exam score stood as a record until 1941.
“For the first ten years of my practice, I was known as ‘that damn woman’. It took me ten years of competent work in law to live that down. The first ten years were hell, and it was because of men who were later removed from practice.” Writing in 1938, Mary said, ” As a journalist, I got cooperation, even from the men. Not so in law. It’s still pretty difficult for a young woman today. There are too many lawyers. A boy may get along being just average, but a girl must know much more than a boy, or she hasn’t a chance.” 26-Jul-1938 The Hugo Daily News However, Mary felt that a female lawyer had an advantage in estate cases – if a rich man dies, there’s likely going to be ten women pop up claiming to be his long lost lover, entitled to a share of the estate. A woman is subtle, and wise to such schemes. When on of my clients dies, I go through all his letters myself.
Mary specialized in probate law, and was the first woman admitted to both the Colorado Bar Association and the Denver Bar Association. After being turned down twice to practice in Federal District Court, on her third try she was admitted. She was the first woman to act as counsel in a case before the Colorado Supreme Court, and the first woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her contributions in law surrounding guardianship of children and Clayton Vs. Hallet before the US Supreme Court led the University of Denver to bestow an honorary doctorate of law. Younger women in the school have been known to call her “Mother Mary” for her trailblazing for women in the legal profession. She was still practicing at 75.
In 1951, Mary’s respiratory problems increased, and she died October 18th. She was posthumously inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.