Born: April 1841
Birthplace: Lakewood, New York
Died: May 19, 1925
Place of Burial: Albany Rural Cemetery, Albany, New York
Contribution: Teacher, suffrage leader, first woman admitted to New York State Bar, and first woman to graduate from Albany Law School
Katherine “Kate” Stoneman was born in Lakewood (town of Busti), New York, in 1841, one of ten children of parents George and Catherine Stoneman. She described her parents (both of whom had been teachers) as “liberal minded” and supportive of her ambitions for education. The family did not have many books for her to read so Kate found herself reading and rereading a huge, musty law book, partly because it interested her and partly because there was little else to read.
Kate left home in 1864 to attend the New York State Normal School at Albany. To support herself, she found employment as a copyist for a reporter from the Court of Appeals. Her time spent reading that musty law book back home made her very proficient at her job, for which she was paid ten cents per page. She finished school and was hired by the Normal School to teach penmanship, drawing and geography.
While teaching, she became very active in suffrage activities in Albany and in 1880 was proud to have been involved in the passage of a bill that provided for the participation of women in school elections. She was described as the “prime mover” and the “core and center of suffrage agitation” in Albany.
Even though she was busy teaching at the Normal School, and actively involved in suffrage activities, Kate maintained an interest in legal research. She read law books in the evenings and on weekends. After serving as the executor of her aunt’s estate, Kate decided to take the bar exam. Without a formal education in law, she passed the written and oral portions of the exam.
It was 1886. At this time in our history, geography, penmanship and drawing were standard subjects for women to teach as more difficult subjects were considered “too rigorous for a woman’s delicate constitution.” Many proponents believed that a university education would so sap a woman’s strength as to render her sterile. And some psychologists considered feminism a form of mental illness.
Although Kate had passed the bar, she was refused admission with the succinct ruling, “no precedent, no necessity.” Who would ever seek legal representation from a woman? Plus, the laws in place denied women the right.
But Kate was not to be deterred; she marshaled suffrage supporters and educators to her cause. A bill was introduced to the State Legislature which would provide women with “admission as attorney and counsel.” With backing from prominent men, the bill passed both the Senate and Assembly and was signed into law by Governor Hill (Chapter 425 of the Laws of 1886). Kate took the signed bill to the Supreme Court justices who earlier had denied her admission to the bar. The Supreme Court decision is dated May 22, 1886, and reads: “In the matter of the application of Kate Stoneman for Admission as attorney and counsel. Application denied. Opinion by Landon, J. The Code being thereafter amended, the application was renewed and granted.” Thus, Stoneman became the first woman in the state of New York to be admitted to the bar.
The Albany Knickerbocker Press later printed:
A new day had dawned for the women of New York State, and from all over the country and from all types of people, telegrams and letters of congratulations poured in to Miss Stoneman.”
Stoneman continued to teach at the Normal School while she pursued a formal legal education. In 1898, she completed the three year program, and at the age of 57, became the first woman to graduate from Albany Law School. She continued to teach school and maintained a law office in Albany for forty years.
Other national movements to which Stoneman was committed were temperance and the establishment of a world peace organization. Kate lived to see the formation of the League of Nations, the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting the sale and manufacture of alcohol, and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote.
Kate Stoneman died in 1925 and is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.
Kate’s intelligence, her courage and tenacity, and what must have been boundless energy, paved the way for women to enter fields of study and pursue careers that were previously unavailable to them. She was a champion of human rights and equality. In 2003, the Town of Busti and the Jamestown Bar Association dedicated an historical marker to Katherine Stoneman in the village of Lakewood.
Compiled by Michelle Henry, Chautauqua County Historian, 2015
Stoneman’s gravestone and plaque in Albany Rural Cemetery
For Further Reading
“About Kate Stoneman: Lawyer, Pioneer, Suffragist,” Albany Law School, http://www.albanylaw.edu/katestoneman/Pages/Biography.aspx.
Katheryn D. Katz, “Kate Stoneman: A Pioneer for Equality” in Pioneering Women Lawyers: From Kate Stoneman to the Present, ed. Patricia E. Salkin (American Bar Association, 2008): 1-12.