Monday, August 26, 2013

Emma Melinda Gillett

Submitted by Lawrence Timothy Phelps - A member of Phelps Genealogy in America from Greenbelt, Maryland. Emma was sister-in-law to James Orlando Phelps, Timothy's Gr-gr-grandfather. President Garfield appointed her first female notary public in Washington. Emma Melinda Gillett (1852- 1927) was a remarkable attorney who helped establish one of the first coeducational law schools in the United States. In 1896, Gillett and a colleague, Ellen Spencer Mussey, sponsored a series of lectures in Washington, D.C., for local women interested in law.
Despite social pressures against women in the legal profession, Gillett and Mussey held the lectures for two years. They expanded their curriculum and created Washington College of Law, a co-educational institution that later became part of American University. Gillett was born July 30, 1852, in Princeton, Wisconsin. After her father, Richard J. Gillett, died in 1854, Gillett moved to Girard, Pennsylvania, with her mother, Sarah Ann Barlow Gillett, and family. Sarah was daughter of George Barlow 1791-1868 and Millinda Dennis (1799-1881).
Like Mussey, Gillett attended Lake Erie Seminary in Painesville, Ohio. Upon graduation in 1870, Gillett became a public school teacher. After ten years of teaching, she decided to move to Washington, D.C., to pursue a Legal Education and career. Her plans were thwarted by the refusal of most district law schools to admit women. Gillett overcame the obstacle by enrolling at Howard University Law College, a well-known, predominantly African American institution that did accept female students. She also was elected president of the Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia.

Gillett earned a law degree from Howard in 1882 and a master of law degree in 1883. She began a successful law practice in Washington, D.C., and became vice president of the D.C. region of the previously all-male. Both Gillett and Mussey had been denied admission to the all-male, all-white law schools in Washington, D.C., which likely motivated the women to form the Washington College of Law. Three additional motivating factors have also been identified. First, women's voluntary associations had experienced significant growth during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Second, opportunities for women in higher education had expanded. Third, the women's suffrage movement had grown considerably.
Gillett and Mussey established a coeducational institution, rather than a women-only law school. They believed that admitting both men and women as students, as well as hiring male faculty and administrators, were necessary to promote gender equality. Perhaps as important, Gillett and Mussey knew that admitting men as students and employing men in faculty and administrative positions were necessary to promote the long-term success of the school. Fifteen years after its establishment, in fact, the number of men enrolled in the school outnumbered the number of women, due largely to the fact that two other law schools in Washington, D.C., began to admit women as students. Nevertheless, only women served as deans of the Washington College of Law until 1947. Washington College of Law earned accreditation from the American Bar Association in 1940 and became a part of American University in 1949.

Gillett succeeded Mussey as dean of the law school in 1913, heading the institution for ten years. Gillett died on January 23, 1927, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 74.

"The majority of the [women] practitioners who are sticking to their work and plodding on [their] way to success are unmarried." —Emma Gillett

Family Tree of Emma Gillett Member of The Daughters of the American Revolution 

George Barlow 1791-1868 and Millinda Dennis (1799-1881) d. of George Dennis and Sarah Robertson, d. of Daniel Robertson and Esther Nichols. Daniel Robertson served was a soldier in the American Revolution. He was as a Private in the 5th Connecticut. George Barlow was a soldier in the War of 1812. He was son of John Barlow and Plain Rogers, d. of John Rogers and Plain Wilkinson. John Rogers and Samuel Rogers served in the American Revolution as lieutenant and captain of a privateer fitted out at their own expense.
George Dennis son of Thomas Dennis and Hannah Wilcox. He served as associate County Judge and was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1792.  Information on Phelps Family Tree

From History of Baltimore city and county, from the earliest period to the present day: including biographical sketches of their representative men by Scharf, John Thomas, 1843-1898.

Mary Elizabeth Gillette, sister to born 04 July 1849, in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin married James Orlando Phelps, son of Charles Chesebrough Phelps and Margaret Jordon on 07 December 1865, Girard, Erie Co Pennsylvania. Charles C Phelps son of Erastus Phelps and Polly Yeomans. Erastus, son of Amos Phelps and Anne Filer. Amos Phelps, son of John Phelps and Anne Horsford served in the American Revolution--Private in the Fourth Regiment Conn. Son of the American Revolution application Charles Phelps Gray

From The Phelps Genealogy "Phelps Family of America" by Judge Oliver Seymour Phelps.

Further readings:
  • Clark, Mary L. 1998."The Founding of the Washington College of Law: The First Law School Established by Women for Women." American University Law Review 613.
  • "Emma Melinda Gillett." 1927. Women Lawyers' Journal. Available online at <> (accessed June 26, 2003).
  • Lineage book of the charter members of the Daughters of the American Revolution Daughters of the American Revolution Published 1891
  • Barlow Genealogy  Timothy Phelps 
  • The history of the descendants of Elder John Strong, of Northampton, Mass, Volume 2


  1. Thank you for this interesting post. Growing up, I heard so much, and with such enthusiasm, about "the Portia Law School" (and then, New England School of Law, a/k/a NESL; now New England Law Boston), a law school originally begun by women for women, dating to 1908 here in our beloved Beantown. This post reminds me of why I love law and history!

  2. I went down to the Law School when I went to an art exhibit at American University a few years ago. Asked guards about any exhibits of the cofounders...they acted like I was an alien just flown in. Well, I may contact the school directly to see if anything. My sister Mary, had Emma's Scribner's Monthlies.