Kilgore was the Law School’s first woman graduate, the first woman admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, and the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court of the United States.
Dr. Caroline Burnham Kilgore L’1883 was a woman who refused to take “no” for an answer. The first time Kilgore applied to the University of Pennsylvania Law School (now the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School), in 1871, the dean threatened to resign if she was admitted, and she was denied acceptance.
That was not the only barrier Kilgore, who already held a medical degree, tried to break that year; she also attempted to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment had not yet been passed, and election officials in Philadelphia declined to accept her ballot. Kilgore asked the Court of Common Pleas to compel the acceptance of her ballot, but it turned her down as well.
That gave Kilgore the opportunity to test her claim in a higher court. She took her case all the way to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The Court sat en banc to hear her argue that women, being citizens, were entitled to suffrage.
The right to vote, Kilgore contended, “is the peculiar right incident to and inseparable from citizenship. Take it away from all the people, and the government dies; take it away from any portion of the people, and just to that extent the government, as republican, is destroyed… . Deny to me, one of the citizens of Pennsylvania, the exercise of the right of suffrage and this guarantee becomes a dead letter. My interest in the Republic is destroyed; to me the government becomes an absolute sovereign — I am its subject — my life, liberty, and property, all are at its mercy.”
When she had finished, the judges declined to hear her adversary’s argument. It would have been a waste of time; they were already prepared to rule against Kilgore.
The defeat did not deter her from spending the rest of her life working to expand the franchise and improve the lives of women. She was an ardent advocate for women workers as a member of the International Workingmen’s Association and stayed active in the National Woman Suffrage Association.
She also saw the admission of women to the study and practice of law as being essential to advancing women’s rights. After her first rejection from the Law School and two years of private study, Kilgore applied for admission to the Pennsylvania Bar. Here, too, she was denied. The Pennsylvania State Board of Examiners said there was “no precedent for examination of a woman for admission to the Bar.”
Nevertheless, she persisted.
After a 10-year struggle that culminated in the passage of state legislation enabling women to enter the legal profession, in 1881 she was finally admitted to the Law School. In 1883, she became the Law School’s first woman graduate. Bar admission soon followed — making Kilgore the first woman admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar — and eventually Kilgore became the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court of the United States.