Unsung: Marilla Ricker

May 1, 2019

For decades, Marilla Ricker was denied the right to vote in Dover, New Hampshire. Now her portrait, by artist Kate Gridley, hangs in the statehouse.

In the late 1800s Marilla Ricker opened the door for women to practice law in New Hampshire. But as Jason Moon reports, some lawyers practicing today say on that issue, we haven’t made as much progress as you might think.

Marilla Ricker’s life could’ve been so normal.

In 1863, when she was 23 years old, she got married to a man in Dover. But just five years later, her husband died. And the traditional domestic life she might have led went with him.

Ricker’s late husband was rich. His death left her in an unusual position for the day: a single woman with financial independence.

Within a year, Ricker went to a women’s suffrage convention.

The next year, at age 30, she became the first woman to attempt to vote in New Hampshire. The Dover town clerk denied her a ballot.

"No honest man doing a legitimate business need fear a woman’s vote," wrote Ricker. "But some men scare easily."

Ricker became a prominent figure in the suffrage movement. Her ideas were pretty radical for the time. For one thing, she thought women should be able to vote. For another, she was deeply anti-religious, largely because she saw religion as anti-woman.

"The history of the Christian Church does not contain one single suggestion for the equality of woman with man," wrote Ricker.

Ricker left New Hampshire for a while and eventually ended up in Washington, D.C. At the time it was one of the few places in the country where women were allowed to practice law. After a few years of study Ricker took the bar exam along with 18 men and scored at the top of the group.

Over decades as an attorney in D.C. Ricker earned a reputation as an advocate on prisoners' rights and labor issues. She did most of her work pro-bono.

In 1890, at the age of 50, Ricker decided to challenge the prohibition against female attorneys back in her home state of New Hampshire. She petitioned the New Hampshire Supreme Court, arguing that if women can be punished under the law like men, they can interpret the law like men.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed. For the first time, women were allowed to take the bar exam in New Hampshire.

Ricker went on to make more firsts. She was the first woman to attempt to run for governor in New Hampshire, the first woman to apply for an ambassador post.

Marilla Ricker died in 1920, just a few months after the 19th amendment was ratified, which granted women the right to vote.

It’s tempting to leave the story of Marilla Ricker there -- a crusading suffragist who lived just long enough to see her decades of activism rewarded with a constitutional amendment.

But that would ignore a lot of what happened over the next hundred years.

Maureen Raiche Manning was admitted to the bar in New Hampshire in 1986.

As a new attorney in the state, it didn’t take her long to notice something.

"I noticed there weren’t a lot of women around," said Manning.

It wasn’t just that they weren’t around. The women that were practicing law were often mistaken as staff. When the men did recognize them as lawyers, they sometimes did it in a way that belittled them as novelties.

In the 1980s, it was common for male attorneys to refer to each other as brother. As in ‘Brother Smith’ or ‘Brother Jones.’

Manning remembers one day, in the middle of a trial, when a male attorney decided to grant her a different title.

"I was trying to make some very strong points, maybe getting kind of animated and the other attorney was like, ‘well Sister Manning.’ And I mean it stopped me dead in my tracks," said Manning. "It stopped me dead in my tracks."

All of this got Manning thinking about the role of women in the New Hampshire bar. She did a little research. And in the late 1980s she ended up writing down some numbers on a small postcard. She showed it to me.

"You can see it’s really sort of worn and I think I’ve spilled things on it over the years. It's usually in my top drawer or in a desk mat. It says ‘women in bar: 18 % of the bar.’"

18 percent. Of all the attorneys practicing law in New Hampshire in the late 1980s, just 18 % of them were women.

"I wrote the information down … because it seemed odd to me," said Manning.

In the years after she jotted down that number, Manning went on to help found what is now the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association. In 2001, to acknowledge the work of women who came before them, they set out to identify the first 100 women to practice law in New Hampshire.

No one had ever done this before, so they weren’t sure what year they’d get to before finding New Hampshire’s 100th woman attorney. They were shocked when they found out it was 1977.

The first 100 women lawyers list compiled by the New Hampshire Women's Bar Association.

For Manning, the realization was humbling. She knew many of the names on the list personally. People like Linda Dalianis, the first woman to serve on the state Supreme Court – she was only the 50th woman to ever be a lawyer in New Hampshire.

Suddenly the history Manning thought she was memorializing seemed a lot closer.

"Oh my god. We’re practicing with women who are part of the first 100 group."

And that’s why she kept that postcard where she wrote down the percentage of women lawyers all these years. To remember that what women like Marilla Ricker have been fighting for is not at all distant.

Today, women still only make up around 37 % of the bar in New Hampshire. Men are still paid more for the same work. In a 2017 survey of New Hampshire lawyers, two-thirds of respondents said an old boys network was alive and well.

And inside courtrooms, people still ask women attorneys if they really are attorneys.

"Or say something like, ‘you should smile more,’" says Attorney Michaila Oliveira, who began practicing law in 2016. "Which can be undermining when you’re walking into a hearing with your client next to you."

Oliveira was one of the people who helped compile that list of the first 100 women lawyers. She said she had heard of Marilla Ricker before, but looking back she wishes the story had been told to her in a different way.

"I wish it was taught more as a – these people exist throughout history and they will continue to exist and you could be one of these people," said Oliveira, "more than here’s this historical figure and they did something great 200 years ago and now we’re done with it."

Marilla Ricker seemed to understand this idea.

Back when she was trying to run for governor in New Hampshire in 1910, Ricker knew she had no chance of winning -- the secretary of state wouldn't even allow her on the ballot. But she wrote that she wanted to get people into the habit of thinking of women as governors. To get the ball rolling, so that one day another woman could come along and take the next step.