Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On a crisp day in late December 1897, the members of the Chester County Bar Association gathered on the front steps of the courthouse in West Chester for their annual group portrait. Three dozen lawyers posed solemnly before the camera, each mustachioed face a mirror image of the next. For the first time in its one hundred and fifty year history, there was something notice­ably different about the assembled group: a solitary female figure stood alone in the sea of black derbies and heavy top­coats. Tall and erect, the young dark­-eyed woman lifted her chin and stared back at the camera with a somber air that matched the male faces around hers. In an instant, the camera’s shutter clicked­ – and history was captured. Isabel Darlington, thirty-two years old and fresh out of law school, had taken her place as Chester County’s first and then only woman lawyer. It was a distinction she would hold for nearly half a century.

Isabel Darlington’s presence at the Chester County Courthouse on that brisk December day marked a critical point in an arduous journey chosen by few women in the late nineteenth centu­ry. Darlington herself had not originally planned to pursue a professional career, let alone break into a male bastion to become an attorney. Just a few years ear­lier, she had basked in the security and warmth of a privileged upper-class life. But when a financial crisis of national proportion wreaked its havoc on her family, a shaken but determined Isabel took the first step toward securing an independent future. When she made her momentous career decision, Isabel Darlington not only broke new ground for herself, but she joined a handful of other women across the country who were struggling to open doors of profes­sional opportunity for all women.

Isabel was born on June 22, 1865, one of six daughters and a son, to Smedley and Mary Edwards Darlington. Her father was a pillar of Chester County’s business and political community. A for­mer school teacher, Smedley Darlington rose to prominence as the president of the Chester County Guarantee Trust and Safe Deposit Company and as a major shareholder in the Farmer’s National Bank. He also led the local Republican party, and for two terms, from 1886 to 1890, served as a member of the United States House of Representatives. With a fortune estimated at nearly one million dollars, Darlington was one of the wealthiest and most influential men of Chester County’s gilded age. He indulged his family, using his wealth to give them a comfortable upper-class life. The Darlingtons made their home at Faunbrook, an imposing Italianate man­sion on Rosedale Avenue on the out­skirts of West Chester. In this luxurious house amidst acres of well-manicured gardens, Darlington nurtured his chil­dren with all the best that life could offer. He was devoted to his entire fami­ly, but enjoyed a special relationship with Belle, as his second daughter was affectionately known. He saw to it that she was well educated, first at the Darlington Seminary, a school for young women that he had purchased in 1860 and located in nearby East Bradford Township. During graduation cere­monies before a large audience at Horticultural Hall on the evening of June 24, 1880, Isabel Darlington unwittingly portended her own future with her valedictory address. “The student toiling over the rugged paths of learning,” she said, “is led on by some alluring hope which points to future fame and great­ness; some bright dream which clothed in the roseate hues of youth sees only difficulties to be conquered, fame and victory to be won.”

In 1882, Isabel entered Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and distinguished herself by excelling in a rigorous academic curriculum that included trigonometry, German, French, chemistry, calculus, Greek, physics, botany, ethics, and logic. She graduated from the prestigious college with honors in 1886, the year Smedley Darlington made his successful bid for a seat in Congress. The Darlingtons temporarily left Faunbrook to make their entrance into Washington society. Newspaper writers were quick to herald their arrival.

The appearance of Rep. and Mrs. Darlington in Washington fashionable life will be a social event. They take an admiring pride in living in a style which their liberal means permit and the happiness of their daughters demands. They will entertain sensibly, but handsomely, as they have always done at home.

Isabel became her father’s private secretary in Washington, thriving in the stimulating environment of public affairs and power. The Washington press sin­gled Belle out as a member of “the present generation of American women taking the advance of the men in knowledge of current affairs, general information and on subjects of national and local administration.”

Choosing not to seek a third term in the House of Representatives, Darlington, accompanied by his family, returned to West Chester and the bank­ing and investment business in 1890. At his side, and often accompanying him on trips to western states where his bank held substantial real estate interests, was twenty-five-year-old Belle.

Then, without warning, the bottom fell out of Isabel Darlington’s secure life.

“I was devoted to my family,” she later wrote, “and wanted to enjoy life in the family circle. [But] the panic of 1893 caused my father heavy losses.” Smedley Darlington, the “man who could fore­close a mortgage on half of the state of Kansas,” was plunged into financial ruin in one of the worst economic depres­sions ever to grip America. The boom on the western Great Plains collapsed as land values and agricultural profits plummeted. Darlington’s bank was forced into receivership, and his person­al losses were estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The crash pro­foundly affected the Darlingtons, partic­ularly Isabel. “I realized,” she continued, “it might be wise to make some indepen­dent provision for the future.”

The provision Isabel chose so boldly was the practice of law. While growing numbers of women were entering pro­fessions in the late nineteenth century, most selected fields that were public extensions of their private and socially acceptable roles as caretakers: teaching, nursing, librarianship, and social work. Even the medical profession, formerly a male citadel, counted thousands of women in its ranks. The legal profession, however, remained virtually impenetra­ble. The practice of law was an all-male domain, a center of power that was not to be invaded by females. Each state established its own requirements for admission to the bar, and the few women who sought access met with var­ied success. The first, Arabella Mansfield, a self-taught attorney, was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1869. Mansfield, however, was the exception rather than the rule. Over the next several years, women’s applications to prac­tice law were struck down again and again on the basis of sex. Myra Bradwell of Illinois took her case to the United States Supreme Court in 1873, where seven of the eight justices ruled against her. In rendering his opinion, Justice Joseph P. Bradley echoed the sentiment of the day.

It cannot be assumed that one of the priv­ileges and immunities of women as citizens is to engage in any and even; profession, occupation, or employment in civil life. 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 natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evi­dently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life … 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. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general consti­tution of things.

By the early 1890s, when Isabel Darlington made her decision, there were fewer than one hundred and forty women lawyers and law students in the United States. Ironically, for many of these women, it was the men in their lives – husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles – who influenced them and sup­ported their interests. Isabel’s brother-in­-law, Thomas Stalker Butler, a prominent West Chester attorney and former district judge, offered her a clerkship in his office. On October 17, 1894, Isabel successfully passed an examination given by a committee of the Chester County Bar for admission to study law. Even the local newspaper commented on her achievement.

The members of the examining committee were greatly pleased with the ability which Miss Darlington showed when undergoing the test, as on all points she seemed thor­oughly prepared for answering such ques­tions as might be asked. For this and numerous other reasons, the members of the bar will extend to her a hearty welcome …. Miss Darlington is considered especially for­tunate in meeting with a kindly reception from the attorneys of this county as in other counties, Cumberland and Montgomery especially, there has been objection which had to be overcome before ladies were allowed to try the examination. Now that the ice is bro­ken in this county, and the first lady has passed, it is expected that several others will make application.

For the next several months, Isabel diligently pored over law books in a handsomely furnished office provided by her father in the Farmer’s Bank Building. When she completed her clerkship and prepared to enter law school, she was met with anything but a warm welcome. In summer 1895, Isabel applied to the University of Pennsylvania and waited into autumn with no response. Perhaps that should not have been a sur­prise. Although several prestigious law schools had formally opened their doors to women – Michigan in 1870, Yale in 1886, Cornell in 1887, New York University in 1891, and Stanford in 1895 – they still considered females to be mentally and physically unsuited for the rigors of law. Isabel Darlington was only the second woman to seek entrance to the law school at the University of Pennsylvania. The first had been Carrie Burnham Kilgore of Philadelphia, who already had a degree in medicine when she was turned away by the university’s law school in the early 1870s. One of the school’s lecturers at the time, E. Spencer Miller, had reacted vehemently to Kilgore’s application. “I do not know what the Board of Trustees will do, but as for me, if they admit a woman I will resign for I will neither lecture to n—— nor women,” he proclaimed. Blatant discrimination aside, the school rested its decision on practicality: why provide legal training to aspiring female practi­tioners when they were denied access to the state courts? Despite an 1879 federal Jaw allowing women to practice in feder­al courts, most states, including Pennsylvania, stood firm in their unwill­ingness to recognize women as attor­neys. Kilgore refused to be defeated for want of a precedent in the Commonwealth. At her urging, State Senator Horatio Gates Jones introduced legislation to permit women to practice before the bar. On Wednesday, March 23, 1881, after the bill had twice failed, Kilgore herself traveled to Harrisburg to address the House. “Gentlemen,” she reasoned, “what equal protection of the law have women citizens of this Commonwealth if there is an aristocratic field of labor, which they cannot enter, because forsooth it suits the prejudices or caprices of a judge to exclude them without regard to learning or character … the closing of the bar to woman is a denial of her right to life in all its completeness and grandeur.”

One by one, Kilgore dismissed the widely held objections to women becom­ing lawyers, assuring her audience that the nation’s families would benefit, not suffer, from equal vocational opportunity. Her eloquence and logic impressed the legislators and finally they enacted a new law. The long battle had not yet ended for Kilgore, however. University of Pennsylvania’s law school administra­tors informed her that even if she attend­ed classes and passed examinations, they were not certain they would graduate her. Her remarkable persistence eventu­ally paid off. In 1883, Carrie Burnham Kilgore completed her legal education at Penn and became the Keystone State’s first female attorney.

Isabel Darlington was likewise undaunted. When George Stewart Patterson, law school president, failed to respond to her application, she wrote to inform him that she would attend the lectures anyway. On February 1, 1896, Isabel officially entered law school at the University of Pennsylvania and proceed­ed to complete three years of study in less than eighteen months. Even so, like Kilgore, Isabel was not assured of gradu­ation until the final hour, which she recounted in a letter to former Wellesley College classmates.

I did not have any idea until three days before commencement that I should be allowed to graduate, and did not know posi­tively until commencement morning. I took the second year’s work in a half year, and the first and third in a year. I had ten final examinations, five on third year work and five on first. I never realized before what work one could do. I averaged twenty hours out of the twenty-four, for three weeks running.

After earning her Bachelor of Laws degree, cum laude, in June 1897, Isabel Darlington returned home to West Chester and applied for admission to the bar. Her examiners, R. T. Cromwell, John J. Pinkerton, J. Frank E. Hause, and Thomas W. Pierce, found her “competent to pursue the practice of law and of good moral character.” On October 4, 1897, Isabel Darlington became the first woman admitted to the Chester County Bar. In 1902, she was admitted to prac­tice before the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, and in 1905 before the State Supreme Court.

Isabel Darlington launched her legal career from a modest office in the Farmers and Merchants Building over­looking the handsome Chester County Courthouse. In 1921, she purchased a building a half block away at 16 East Market Street, and remained there until her retirement nearly three decades later. She proved to be a prudent and capable lawyer, handling matters of real estate, taxes, trusts, business, and civil law for clients with an almost military precision. Chester Countians from all walks of life came to her for legal assistance, from ordinary citizens and prosperous, mid­dle-class farmers to large companies such as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Her most promi­nent client was Pierre S. du Pont, with whom she established a long working relationship when she handled his acquisition of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

Isabel Darlington pragmatically eschewed the defense of criminals, despite the advice of her law school pro­fessors and legal giants, including Clarence Darrow, who were more than willing to relinquish that aspect of the law to women. “You can have that field solely for your own,” Darrow had once quipped to a group of women in Chicago. “You can’t make a living at it, but it’s worthwhile and you’ll have no competition.” Isabel recognized the truth of the statement and purposely built her practice on the side of law “that affects those with money.” Besides, she had a penchant for numbers, finding the ana­lytical abilities required in the study of mathematics to be most useful in her legal career. Her financial acumen did not go unrewarded. In 1925, Comptroller of the Currency Joseph W. Mcintosh appointed Isabel as the receiver of the failed Parkesburg National Bank, mak­ing her the first woman in the country to hold such a position. The press sat up and took notice. Reporter William E. McKeachie wondered if this was a sign that women were succeeding in ousting men from the business world. When he questioned Isabel about her unprece­dented appointment, she responded with characteristic candor.

Women are driven into business and pro­fessions in most cases for the same reasons that men are – necessity. It is hard to find a business office nowadays that has not at least one woman in a responsible position. Women can usually be implicitly trusted; you seldom hear of one dishonest in business. And they are logical thinkers, if properly trained.

She further philosophized that three factors – heredity, environment, and edu­cation – were the keys to her success, and would be for business women in the future. Isabel concluded the interview with a caveat that revealed a reason for her unmarried status “But. .. women can­not expect to be successful home-makers and home-keepers and successful busi­ness women at the same time.” She believed either undertaking required the full extent of a woman’s time and ener­gy, and she had opted solely for a life in business. Many of her younger proteges, however, did not see marriage and career as mutually exclusive. At the time, about twenty percent of all professional women contended with the dual respon­sibilities of job and family, a struggle familiar to many women today.

For more than forty years, Darlington remained absorbed in a legal practice she characterized as “exacting.” She found no time for marriage, and little for the “endless luncheons, teas, and uplift meetings” of women’s clubs. Nevertheless, always appearing impec­cably attired down to her gloves and trademark hat, Isabel Darlington played a leading role in the success of important community organizations. During World War I, she managed the Chester County War Aid Association, a critical link between young soldiers on the war front and their families at home. In addition, she was an officer and board member of the Wentworth Home for Women, a vice president of the Women’s Republican Club of Chester County, Director of the Poor for the county, and a vice president of the Chester County Historical Society. If she had any time for leisure, she indulged her passion for gar­dening at Faunbrook, where she contin­ued to live with her sisters Edith, May, and Rose.

Isabel Darlington’s remarkable posi­tion as the only woman attorney in Chester County spanned forty-five years. It was not until 1941, when Helen Wade Parke was admitted, that another woman would join the bar. Coincidentally, Darlington sat on the Board of Law Examiners and seized the opportunity to chide the hatless appli­cant and insist on appropriate profes­sional dress. Parke, a former jockey and military officer, remembered the incident years later with respect and admiration. “But that was our Belle – she was pretty stern and proper.” The entire legal com­munity shared Parke’s regard for Darlington. In 1941, fellow lawyers elect­ed her president of the Chester County Bar Association, making her the first woman to hold such an office east of the Mississippi.

Poor health eventually prevented the elderly Darlington from making her daily trek from Faunbrook to her East Market Street office in spring 1950. Nevertheless, she continued to conduct business from her bedside with the assis­tance of her secretary and friend , Mary Mason. She died quietly at her beloved Faunbrook on June 24, 1950, ending long years of distinguished service to the peo­ple of Chester County.

Isabel Darlington did not live to see the end of restrictions against women in the legal profession. Some would argue that they continue still, citing a 1988 report of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women that reveals “a persistence of gender discrimination in the legal profession … the barriers women face consist of overt discriminatory behavior, subtle attitudes and institutional structures.” Considering the resistance encountered by Isabel Darlington and her contemporaries in the last century, significant gains have been made, most occurring in the last twenty-five years. In the 1991-1992 academic year, women comprised forty-four percent of the law school enrollment at the University of Pennsylvania, just above the national average of forty-two percent. Today, about one quarter of the estimated half­-million practicing attorneys are female. For the first time in American history, a woman, Janet Reno, holds the post of United States Attorney General. And most recently, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the first woman law professor at Columbia University, joined Sandra Day O’Connor on the bench of the Supreme Court.

If Isabel Darlington considered herself a role model, she never mentioned it. But by proving herself a capable intellect and dedicated professional, she paved the way for others to follow. Perhaps that, above all, is her greatest legacy to the people of Pennsylvania.


For Further Reading

Chester, Ronald. Unequal Access: Women Lawyers in a Changing America. Boston: Bergin and Garvey, 1985.

Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. Women in Law. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

McElroy, Janice H., ed. Our Hidden Heritage, Pennsylvania Women in History. Washington, D. C.: American Association of University Women, 1983.

Morello, Karen Berger. The Invisible Bar: The Woman Lawyer in America 1638 to the Present. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Nolan, J. Bennett. Southeastern Pennsylvania: A History of the Counties of Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Philadelphia and Schuylkill. Philadelphia: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1943.

Weisberg, D. Kelly. “Barred From the Bar: Women and Legal Education in the United States 1870-1890.” Journal of Legal Education 28 (1977), 485-507.


Gail Capehart Long of Glen Mills is a free­lance historian and writer. She received her bachelor of arts degree in American studies from West Chester University, where her
work on Isabel Darlington earned the Grace Cochran Research on Women Award. The author recently completed her master’s degree in American history at the University of Delaware.