Robinson, Lelia Josephine (1850-1891)

  • By Starlyn Stout
  • Posted 12/08/2021
  • Essay 21367
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Lelia Robinson is a celebrated feminist pioneer in American legal history. Among her achievements, she was the first woman to earn admission to the Massachusetts State Bar. While those who know of Robinson don’t ordinarily associate her with the Pacific Northwest, her brief stint as a lawyer in Seattle from 1884 to 1886 made a deep impression on her personally and professionally, and left a mark on the territory she left behind.

Making History in Boston

Lelia Josephine Robinson was born in Boston on July 23, 1850, and grew up in a middle-class family. She attended Boston public schools and learned early on that she had a keen interest in journalism. At the age of 17 she was married to a tinsmith named Rupert J. Chute. She worked professionally as a journalist, with her articles published in several Boston-area newspapers and magazines. Early in their marriage, Robinson petitioned for a divorce from Chute on the grounds of infidelity. She returned to her maiden name and erased the incidental marriage from her story -- she never made mention of it again, though in her writings she did mention the inherent complications of being a married woman with a career.

She is best known for the period following her graduation in 1881 from Boston University Law School, where she became the first woman to graduate from the institution. She was then denied entrance into the Massachusetts State Bar until she lobbied the state legislature and presented her case in the form of the "Woman Lawyers Bill," which passed unanimously and earned her admission to the Bar in 1882. Despite her landmark victory and being duly licensed to practice law, the climate for a woman lawyer in Boston remained inhospitable.

Boston’s Woman Lawyer Heads West

News of Robinson’s "David and Goliath" struggle with the Massachusetts State Bar and her subsequent triumph reached across the country. According to an April 1882 article in the Vancouver Independent: "Lelia J. Robinson, Boston’s woman lawyer, is said to have acquired a fair office practice but is denied the right to argue cases at the bar. In order to let her voice be heard in public, she has delivered a lecture before a large audience. She maintained her cause in a way that made the newspapers praise her" ("Miscellaneous Items").

In Washington Territory, the legislature in Olympia passed the Suffrage Act of 1883, affording Washington women the right to vote as well as the right to serve on juries. The Washington Standard recalled Robinson’s intentions to capitalize on this new opportunity: "[she] thinks the West offers better opportunities than the East to a woman lawyer, and that the further west one goes, the more favorable the conditions become" ("Interesting to Women").

Robinson made her way west slowly, making several stops along the way to engage in discussions with lawyers and laypeople alike. While most of those she spoke with east of the Cascades seemed ambivalent about the right to vote, as it had not yet been tested in a territorial election, some suggested that extending women the vote was done by accident, "or rather as the result of the wily scheming of certain friends of the [suffrage] movement in the legislature" (Robinson, 23). All with whom she spoke referred her west to Puget Sound, the hub of the suffrage movement, where she would see the results at full steam.

Brothers in the Profession, Sisters of the Jury

All eyes were on the West to see how this great experiment regarding "the woman question" would pan out, either permanently reinventing conventional institutions or confirming suspicions that "the time-honored sex" should remain solely at the helm. Just as Robinson suspected, she was able to establish her own Seattle-based practice with relative ease in May 1884. Within 48 hours of her arrival, she was invited to sit in on the final week of court, where she would witness her first "mixed" jury.

Robinson was skeptical of the shift to women on juries, a skepticism she would come to regret. While she staunchly believed and advocated that women should have the right to vote, to force women on juries was going too far. "I am ashamed to say that I formed and even expressed this opinion, without any very sound logical reason behind it, but only on the spur of -- prejudice, I suppose it was.” (Robinson, 24). She was not the only one who had reservations. The suspicion was that women would not be able to concentrate during the long hours of a trial and wouldn’t be able to follow complicated proceedings. They would be tempted to chat with other women on the jury and bring their needlework to pass time. Not to mention that their delicate sensibilities would likely be offended by much of what they might see and hear in court.

As Robinson stared at the jury of five women and seven men in a Seattle courtroom, she “became suddenly conscious that I myself, as a woman member of the bar in Massachusetts, was attracting quite as curious and interested attention from my Western brothers in the profession, as my sisters of the jury were receiving from me" (Robinson, 25). Her opinion of women jurors evolved, and she was surprised by the many instances in which women remained steady when challenged by emotional pleas or personal bias. These women, time after time, upheld the highest standards of reason and decorum. "To my surprise -- you see I was in rather a chronic state of surprise in those days ..." everyone with whom she spoke expressed how well the new juries seemed to be working out (Robinson, 25).

Territorial Chief Justice Roger S. Greene (1840-1930), who had been given sole custody of all cases presented before mixed juries, was one of the primary defenders of the change. He declared that in his decade or more on the bench in the territory, he had never been able to get more reliable jury service than after the mixed juries were called. Women seemed to take the duty much more seriously and soberly than their male counterparts. Robinson admired Justice Greene a great deal and was eager to speak with him and any others who could give insight, as she claimed, "I could not witness in silence so strange an innovation" (Robinson, 25). She was further caught off guard by the caliber of women she observed on the stand. "Their faces and manner -- their presence, in a word -- showed them to be, without exception, cultivated, educated women of fine, delicate feminine instincts; the kind of women who make delightful homes, happy wives, and the best of mothers" (Robinson, 24).

"Nothing but Straight and Square Evidence"

In "Women Jurors," written by Robinson in 1886, she summarized her impressions of Seattle’s woman-citizen experiment. Robinson recounted an experience brought by Judge John C. Hughes of Seattle, where he described one of the most compelling examples of mixed juries. In 1884, "up-sound" in Jefferson County, a man named O’Green was accused of manslaughter and tried before a mixed jury containing two of O'Green's wife's dearest friends. During jury selection, his defense attorneys decided to "get rid" of the two women, but were asked by their defendant to retain them. "Those two women are my wife's best friends. You can wind them round your finger" (Robinson, 26). To Robinson, it seemed a pretty tough case. The facts could have easily held the man to account for the severest charge of murder, let alone manslaughter. For the male members of the jury, the defense leaned on arguments of self-defense, while for the benefit of the female members of the jury, counsel invited the wife and children of the defendant to sit in clear view, "crying their prettiest" throughout the trial ("Women Jurors"). 

Reports reached the courtroom that the jury required another ballot and after hours of deliberating, the members were locked at 10-2. The defense held out hope that those two faithful friends would remain strong and win him an acquittal. After the sun had set, the jury was ready to render its verdict. While the jury was indeed hung, and the defendant awarded the acquittal he’d hoped for, it was not due to those two women. They were the two holdouts who maintained his guilt and the only jury members "too clear-sighted to be fooled by the self-defense theory which had caught their brother jurors, and too conscientious to allow their pity for the wife to affect their judgment of the case" (Robinson, 27).

Challenging Women Jurors

The new rights for Washington Territory's women, however, were anything but set in stone. Robinson herself would be a key player in the undoing of women serving on juries and ultimately, women's suffrage in the territory altogether.

The issue came to the forefront in the 1884 criminal case of defendant Mollie Rosencrantz of Tacoma, who was being tried before a mixed grand jury for running a "house of ill fame." Robinson was part of the defense counsel for Rosencrantz against the Territory of Washington, which had taken a recent interest in cleaning house and making the streets of cities such as Tacoma and Seattle more attractive to reputable businesses and settlers.

Seated upon that grand jury were two married women and one widow. When the verdict of guilty was handed down, Rosencrantz was convinced that her jury, being made up partly of married women, would naturally be prejudiced against her and the line of work she was allegedly in. She pleaded with her attorneys to appeal the verdict. Robinson was tasked with leading the hunt for a constitutional exemption that might exclude women from juries: 

"It chanced that my business associations made it necessary for me to aid in looking up the law and preparing the brief that was used by the attorneys for the Appellants, so that while my sympathies were on one side of the question, my work was done on the other, which sometimes must happen" (Robinson, 31).

The wording of the law was this: that "all qualified electors shall be competent to serve as petit jurors, and that all qualified electors and householders shall be competent to serve as grand jurors" (Ch. 152 Sec 2078 of the Code). If a woman is married, could she be considered a "householder" if she is not technically the head of her household? While women had been deemed electors by the recent change to the Constitution, there was no mention of how this change ranked them in the hierarchy of the home. In the case of Rosencrantz, upon appeal, the verdict, and the rights of married women to serve on grand juries, were upheld.

However, the case of Rosencrantz v. Territory of Washington and the "woman question" it posed -- whether women constitute electors as outlined in the Constitution -- would reach the Territorial Supreme Court in 1887 and be cited in arguments against the validity of the 1883 Suffrage Act as a whole. On February 3, 1887, the supreme court declared the suffrage act of 1883 unconstitutional by a vote of two to one. Woman lost their right to vote (it was reinstated in 1910) and were no longer permitted to serve on juries. 

Ultimately the court found that the spirit of the suffrage movement was not infringed upon by excluding women from juries. In fact, wrote Associate Justice George Turner of Spokane in his dissenting opinion at the 1884 trial, the courtroom would expose women to influences that would surely "shock and blunt [their] fine sensibilities, the possession of which is her chiefest charm, the protection of which under the religion and laws of all countries, civilized or semi-civilized, is her most sacred right ... My views, therefore, are that women cannot be jurors; and that they cannot be householders so long as they are married, and sharing the household of the husband" (Rosencrantz v. Territory).

Life and Legacy

Robinson concluded her time in Washington and returned to Boston in 1886. Her writings on her experience were complete before the more lasting effects of her compelling argument would come to bear anti-suffrage fruits in the courts years later. Based on her writings, she was unfamiliar with the long-term impacts of Rosencrantz's appeal on the suffrage rights of Washington women. She acknowledged that women’s jury rights had been upheld and that the matter had been directed to the territorial supreme court. Of woman voters, she wrote: 

"There is much threatening every now and again by one political party or another, that unless the women voters do thus and so [...], they will find themselves disenfranchised again before they know it. But [the women] go quietly on just the same, voting according to the dictates of their own sweet wills, scratching tickets fearfully, choosing their candidates rather for personal worth than party principles, secure in the fact that it is far easier to enfranchise than to disenfranchise" (Robinson, 33).

One wonders the reason for her leaving Seattle, or what she felt her legacy would be from her time in Washington. Upon her return to the East Coast, Robinson married Eli Sawtelle, a Boston piano maker. She corresponded with woman lawyers throughout the country and even designed a survey inquiring after their unique backgrounds and experiences. Robinson's writings painted a varied portrait of what an American woman lawyer looked like, including examples of several women educated and practicing in the Northwest. Her goal was to normalize women in the practice and demonstrate that women of all walks of life were and could continue to be successful in litigation. "Don’t be 'lady lawyers’'," she cautioned her fellow members of the Equity Club (an organization of women in the profession). "Simply be lawyers and recognize no distinction -- no existence or any distinction between yourselves and the other members of the bar" (Equity Club, 66)

Robinson died tragically by accidental poisoning in New Hampshire on August 10, 1891 at the age of 41. Each year in Boston she is honored by the Women’s Bar Association, which awards the Lelia J. Robinson Award to lawyers who exemplify her efforts to empower women through their accomplishments and outreach. Buried in Amherst, New Hampshire's Meadow View Cemetery, her epitaph reads: "At rest - The pioneer woman lawyer of Massachusetts, Author, and Journalist. A lover of the true, the good and the beautiful." Despite her mixed legacy in Washington, her overall impact on women’s rights is the enduring story of a dynamic figure in U.S. legal history. 


Virginia G. Drachman, "Robinson, Lelia Josephone (1850-1891), Lawyer and Author," American National Biography, published February 2000, website accessed November 12, 2021 (; Virginia G. Drachman, 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), 66; Harriet Jane Hanson Robinson, and National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement: A General, Political, Legal and Legislative History from 1774, to 1881 (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), PDF retrieved from the Library of Congress ( 148-150; Douglas Lamar Jones, "The Legacy of Lelia J. Robinson," Massachusetts Legal History: A Journal of the Supreme Judicial Court Historical Society, 6, 2000; "Miscellaneous Items" The Vancouver Independent, April 27, 1882, p. 7; "Interesting to Women" The Washington Standard, June 17, 1887, p. 1; "Women's Rights in Seattle" Seattle Post-intelligencer, July 22, 1884, p. 4; Lelia J. Robinson, "Women Jurors." Chicago Law Times, vol. 1, no. 1, November 1886; Frontier Justice: Guide to the Court Records of Washington Territory -- Jefferson County (Criminal Files) 1854-1889; Jefferson County Territorial Criminal File Date: 1884 Jefferson County File # 756, Washington State Archives Northwest Regional Branch; Aaron H. Caplan, "History of Women's Jury Service in Washington," Washington State Bar News, vol. 59, no. 3, March 2005; Code of Washington 1881, Ch. 152, Sec. 2078 (, 353 "Rosencrantz, 2 Wash. Terr. 267 (1884)" Supreme Court of the Territory of Washington, Municipal Research and Services Center website accessed November 10, 2021 (; "Lelia Robinson Sawtelle" website accessed 19 July 2021 (; Barbara Allen Babcock, "Making History: Lelia Robinson's Index to American Women Lawyers," Stanford Law School, July 1998 (

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