Violette Neatley Anderson (1882-1937)

The First Black Woman Admitted to Practice before the U.S. Supreme Court

By: Dr. William H. Chavis, Jr.

“You have come a long way, Baby.”

The above title reflects a slogan used in a television Virginia Slims cigarette commercial in 1968. The commercial involved scene sketches encouraging women to become more than housewives, and to demonstrate their freedom from past legal, social restrictions that women had faced. 

The United States Supreme Court was instrumental in preventing women from the practice of law. The Court in 1872 denied Myra Bradwell from becoming a lawyer because of her gender (Bradwell v. State of Illinois, 83 U.S. (15 Wall) 130 (1872). The Court ruled that the right to practice law for women was not a privilege guaranteed to them under the Fourteenth Amendment. To add insult to injury, Justice Bradley introduced the traditional social view about women by stating in part, “The civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman.” “…. the paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.” 

The Court relegated women as property of men; only good enough to mend their socks, have children and cook for them. Today, the Supreme Court is comprised of four women justices with a range of skin colors: Elena Kegan, Sonia Sotomayor (first Latina Justice), Amy Comey Barrett, and Ketanji Brown Jackson (first female African-American Justice). The law has come a long way in embracing women in the legal profession since the Bradwell decision. No longer is the public life the exclusive domain of men.

Like the women above, Violette N. Anderson was not a shrinking Violet. She had come a long way to establish a legal career. She was a legal trail blazer for Black women. She is little known as a historical figure in Black history. She is barely mentioned in the legal profession where she successfully practiced law in Chicago. She married a medical doctor, Dr. Daniel H. Anderson, and worked as a court reporter for fifteen years (1905-1920). 

Anderson graduated from Chicago Law School and passed the Illinois bar in 1922. Anderson was the first Black woman to graduate from any law school in the state of Illinois. She was the first woman to establish a law firm in the state of Illinois – a feat quite rare for any woman. Anderson had come a long way from being a court reporter to become a lawyer. 

Anderson was a proud Chicagoan who was raised and educated in Chicago, although born in London, England. Her parents settled in Chicago when she was a child. Her exemplary legal skills resulted in her being appointed to the position of assistant prosecutor in Chicago after successfully defending a woman accused of murdering her husband in 1922. She was the first woman and first African-American woman appointed assistant prosecutor of Chicago. Anderson became the first Black woman to be admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court on January 29, 1926. 

As a social activist, she lobbied tirelessly to provide sharecroppers and tenant farmers the opportunity to receive low-interest loans to buy small farms in the segregated south. Her lobbying efforts of the U.S. Congress resulted in the passage of the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act which was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 22, 1937. 

Violette Anderson died on December 24, 1937. Her body was laid to rest at Lincoln Cemetery, Blue Island, Cook County, Illinois. She will not be forgotten.


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