Ada Harriet Miser Kepley (February 11, 1847-June 13, 1925), an energetic women’s suffragist, temperance advocate, and Unitarian minister, was the first American woman to graduate from law school. A friend of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) president Frances E. Willard, she performed daring actions in the name of their cause, and braved both legal restraint and physical assault. She wrote in her autobiography, “I like to be at the front of great movements as far as possible.”
Ada, one of four children of Henry and Ann Miser, was born and spent much of her childhood in Somerset, Ohio. Living with her family in St. Louis, Missouri, 1860-66, she completed two years of high school. The Misers then moved to Effingham, Illinois, a pioneer settlement, where she lived the rest of her life. There, her parents ran a hotel and her mother had a book store and circulating library.
Henry Miser, who was not interested in organized religion, joined the Methodist Church to please his wife. He opened his home to pioneer Methodist preachers and even hosted one of their quarterly meetings. His religious affiliation ended when the Methodists expelled him for being late for Sunday service. Ann Miser afterwards became a Swedenborgian. Ada had “psychists” and spiritualists among her relatives. “The old faiths were in my bones and flesh and flowed in my blood; it was hard to get free,” she later wrote. “I suffered, my soul was in travail before the Great Source of things and men, and life and love; my reason and my heart rose in revolt; but at last I was free; I became a Free Thinker.”
Ultimately Ada chose to remain free from all creeds. “I began to see that the most desirable thing for a human soul was to have freedom of thought,” she recalled. “I learned that no one had the right suppress it, and that no one had the right to limit it; that no one had the right to make a creed for me; that it was my duty in the fear of God to evolve my own creed, and that I did myself a wrong to permit any one to make a creed for me.”
In 1867 Ada married Henry B. Kepley, who had his own law practice in Effingham. Henry at first trained his wife to be his legal assistant. Under her husband’s supervision and with his encouragement, she soon aspired to a professional legal career of her own. Although it meant a separation of nearly 200 miles, she went to Chicago to study at the Union College of Law (Northwestern), 1869-1870. When she earned her Bachelor of Law degree (LL.B.), 1870, she was the first woman to graduate from law school in the United States.
Upon graduation, Kepley accompanied her classmates to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office to apply for her license to practice law. State’s Attorney Charles Read informed her that Illinois law did not permit women to enter the learned professions. Henry Kepley helped his wife challenge this ruling by drafting a bill forbidding sex discrimination in the legal and other professions. Although the bill was passed and became law in 1872, Ada did not apply for and receive her license until 1881. She occasionally handled court cases, but she did not steadily practice as a lawyer. Her main effort had been diverted to reform issues: women’s suffrage, equal rights for women and temperance.
Temperance work was Kepley’s passion. She held office in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) at the local, county, state, and national levels. In 1883 she wrote a seven-page pamphlet, The Ways to Teach Temperance. From 1885 to 1896 she published The Friend of Home, a monthly temperance paper which published the names of men frequenting saloons. This work had its hazards. She was once beaten over the head by an angered saloonkeeper. In 1897 she was beaten with a rubber tube by an intruder in her own home. The culprit, the son of a liquor dealer, attempted to shoot her, but missed and wounded her dog instead. Undaunted, Kepley continued to promote the social purity movement. Having unsuccessfully asked the local postmaster to remove the poster of a half-nude woman advertising a female minstrel show, she and three other women tore the poster down. She was arrested and fined $20.
Without children herself, Kepley organized the local children into a “Band of Hope” which she taught about the dangers of alcohol. She was asked why she bothered caring about other peoples’ children. “I think the Mothers have front seats in Heaven,” she told them. “I want a front seat or one near the front.” Her youthful squadron attended WCTU rallies and picketed in front of taverns as she went inside and attempted to destroy the supply of liquor with her pickaxe.
Equally interested in women’s suffrage, Kepley was the Prohibition Party candidate for Illinois State Attorney General in 1881. Although she had no chance of winning, she used her candidacy to promote not only temperance, but women’s right to vote and hold public office. She called herself a “stock candidate.” “If any candidate was lacking, I’d go on the ticket and make the best fight possible, and people would raise all sorts of questions, and we would argue them just as if there were a possibility of my election, when there wasn’t a ghost of a show but it was good agitation.”
Kepley left the Prohibition Party when the women’s suffrage plank was eliminated and did not return until it was replaced. “I work as hard as a man,” Kepley proclaimed. “I earn money like a man; I bear the burdens of Community like a man. I am robbed as a woman! I have no voice in anything or in saying how my money, which I have earned, shall be spent. The men of Illinois and the United States run their hands into my pockets, take out my hard earned money, and say impertinently, ‘What are you going to do about it, you can’t help yourself.'”
In 1883 Kepley distributed a circular informing women of their existing voting rights and how to exercise them. At that time women could vote in elections for school directors, school trustees, and trustees of the State University at Champaign, Illinois. The circulars, co-signed by Kepley on behalf of the Illinois WCTU, explained to readers that it was important to vote in these elections in order to answer to the objections of Illinois legislators who contended that women do not want to vote. She was twice elected to serve on the local school board and was the first woman School Director in Effingham County.
Kepley belonged to a number of women’s organizations, notably the Equity Club, a correspondence network which between 1886 and 1890 supported women pioneering in the legal profession. In 1883 she was a founding member of a “High Cult Emerson Club,” a women’s reading circle. She was president of the club for 13 years and represented it at the 1895 annual meeting of the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Kepley was introduced to Unitarianism by her husband. She later wrote, “I am always glad for the New Thought (Unitarian) people who came to teach the Gospel, and help men and women to rise Godward and be happier and better.” In 1890 Jabez T. Sunderland wrote in the Unitarian, “[Kepley] is thoroughly with us in her convictions; but she is no controversialist; it is in practical religious work that she is most interested; here she is strong.” In 1892 she was ordained as a Unitarian minister by Jasper L. Douthit, at the First Congregational (Unitarian) Church in Shelbyville, Illinois.
Although she was never settled as a minister at a Unitarian church, for twenty years she preached from the pulpit of The Temple, a former Southern Methodist church which her husband purchased, and which they renamed after Frances Willard’s WCTU headquarters, and dedicated to the temperance cause. “Our Band of Hope rallies centered here, the Festivals of the year; opening, closing, New Years, Valentines Day, Easter were all held in its precincts,” she later wrote. “Our walls were hung with banners and pictures. We marched, we sang; young minds were shaped, men and women were lifted up and their feet set in a good way and out of that work the Churches were enlarged.”
After her husband died in 1906, Kepley sold their home and moved to a farm. Her attempt to make a living through agriculture was unsuccessful. She then tried to support herself through writing. She wrote poetry—some in German—and an autobiography, A Farm Philosopher: A Love Story, 1912. During the First World War she wrote a song, “My Sweetheart over the Sea Who Fought for Liberty.” In 1916, she published The Effingham Town and Country Song Book: the First Town and Country Song Book in the World. Sales of these books did not, however, provide her with much income. As she was too proud to accept charity from friends, her last years were spent living in poverty in Effingham, where she was regarded as an eccentric figure.
A principal source of information on Kepley is her own story, A Farm Philosopher: A Love Story (1912). There are short biographical articles on Kepley in Frances Willard and Mary Livermore, A Woman of the Century: Leading American Women (1893); American National Biography (1999); and Virginia G. Drachman, Women Lawyers and the Origins of Professional Identity in America, The Letters of the Equity Club, 1887 to 1890 (1993). The latter includes two of her letters to the Equity Club, one of which provides biographical information. See also Peggy Pulliam, “Effingham’s Fighting Female,” in Hilda Engbring Feldhake, ed., Effingham County—Past and Present (1968). On the Unitarian connection see Jasper L. Douthit, Jasper Douthit’s Story (1909) and Douthit’s periodical, Our Best Words (1909).
Article by Judy Rosella Edwards
Posted June 29, 2004