Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Mary Philbrook, 1872-1958

By Lisa Hendrickson, Independent Historian

Lawyer and activist, Mary Philbrook, was born on August 6, 1872 in Washington, D.C., to Harry Baxter Philbrook (1840-1921) and Rebecca Elizabeth Stearns (1845-?). She was the oldest of three siblings: Florence, Robert, and Elizabeth. Her father had a successful law practice in New York City, and her mother was a descendent of Isaac Stearns, who came from England to Salem, MA, in 1630. In 1878, the family moved to Jersey City, NJ, settling at 59 Sip Avenue. Mary attended public school #11 and then Jersey City High School, but she did not graduate. She apprenticed as a stenographer in two Hoboken, NJ, law offices, learning the law profession.

In 1894, Mary applied to the New Jersey bar. Initially her application was denied because women were barred from practicing law in the state of New Jersey. Supported by the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association (NJWSA) and women such as Cecilia Gaines, Philbrook successfully lobbied the legislature to change the law. She was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1885, and at 22 years old, became the first woman allowed to practice law in New Jersey. The Daily Times stated, “If Miss Philbrook or any other woman has the desire and the ability to be a lawyer there does not appear to be any good reason why she should not be allowed to use her humanizing influence upon the profession which exists solely because of the natural belligerency of the male sex.” She argued her first case in front of the Middlesex County Court on July 27, 1897, and began working for the law firm of Bacot and Record in Jersey City.

In 1899, Philbrook, and fellow lawyers, Dr. Mary D. Hussey and Miss Mary G. Potter, founded the Women Lawyers' Club. In 1902, Philbrook moved to Newark, NJ to open up her own practice, and was appointed the first female probation officer in Essex County. In 1906, she became the first female New Jersey lawyer admitted to practice in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Philbrook was a strong supporter of penal reform, equal wages for women, and educating women of their legal rights. She served on the New Jersey Women's Reformatory Commission, and acted as counsel to the New Jersey Legal Aid Association, which she helped found. She wrote legislation supporting her reform aims, including a program supporting family and juvenile courts, a women's factory bill, and an act to legitimize children born out of wedlock. She also gave speeches and wrote articles championing women's legal rights.

Philbrook's mother and grandmother supported women's suffrage, and Philbrook became involved with the NJWSA in the 1890s. In 1911, she wrote a law brief arguing for women's suffrage. The brief contended that women had the right to vote under the original New Jersey state constitution of 1776 and that the 1844 constitution was unconstitutional as it limited the right to vote to male citizens. The courts ruled against her, but her brief attracted attention from constitutional experts across the country.

During WWI, Philbrook served in France as a lawyer for the Red Cross. When she returned to the United States, she began working for the National Woman's Party. She met activist Alice Paul at a suffrage demonstration and supported Paul's militant form of activism. After the 19th amendment passed, she worked with Paul for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Philbrook supported the ERA, disavowing the belief that women should get special treatment. Her theory was, “to give neither sex more privileges that the other. Place them on the same footing and by thus establishing this equality both man and woman will be better able to work intelligently in the business and professional world.” In the late 1930s, Philbrook served on the National Advisory Council of the National Woman's Party as well as chaired the New Jersey Women's Archives. In the 1940s, she revived the New Jersey campaign for the ERA, securing changes in the New Jersey Constitution ensuring equal rights for women.

Philbrook worked as a lawyer up until a few years before her death on September 2, 1958 in Point Pleasant, NJ. A lasting testament to her legacy is the Rutgers School of Law's Mary Philbrook Public Interest Award. The Award, “is presented to a woman with a distinguished legal career during which she has removed barriers and created opportunities for other women in the interest of advancing equality in all spheres.”


“Mary Philbrook: in the 1900 United States Federal Census,” 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2004. Year: 1900; Census Place: Jersey City Ward 9, Hudson, New Jersey; Page: 14; Enumeration District: 0144; FHL microfilm: 1240979

“Mary Philbrook: in the New Jersey, State Census, 1915,” New Jersey, State Census, 1915 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2017. New Jersey State Archive; Trenton, NJ, USA; State Census of New Jersey, 1915; Reference Number: NA; Film Number: 51

“Mary Philbrook: in the 1930 United States Federal Census,” 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2002. Year: 1930; Census Place: Newark, Essex, New Jersey; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 0119; FHL microfilm: 2341071

“Mary Philbrook: in the U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925,” U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2007. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 1425; Volume #: Roll 1425 - Certificates: 115626-115999, 30 Nov 1920-01 Dec 1920

Benton-Cohen, Katherine. Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and its Legacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Burstyn, Joan N., Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women, (New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1997), pg. 180-181.

Gordon, Felice D., After Winning: the Legacy of New Jersey Suffragists 1929-1940, (New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1986), pgs. 134-136.

Lurie, Maxine N., Marc Mappen, Encyclopedia of New Jersey, (New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2004), pg. 882.

Scannell, J. J., Scannell”s New Jersey's First Citizens and State Guide, (Patterson, NJ, J.J. Scannell, 1918), pg. 398-399.

Giles, Isabel, Women Lawyers' Journal, Volumes 1-4, (Richmond Hill, NY, Women Lawyers' Association), pg. 28.

Petrick, Barbara Burns Ph.D. Mary Philbrook: The Radical Feminist in New Jersey, Trenton, New Jersey Historical Commission, 1977 dissertation.

Van Wagenen, Avis Stearns, Stearns Genealogy and Memoirs, (Syracuse, NY., Courier Printing Co., 1901), pg. 17.

“Miss Philbrook,” The Daily Times, New Brunswick, NJ, February 24, 1894, pg. 2.

“A Portia Argues,” The Daily Times, New Brunswick, NJ, July 17, 1897, pg. 1.

“Woman to Fight For Her Sex,” The New Brunswick Times, November 2, 1911, pg. 1.

“Mary Philbrook, Lawyer, Is Dead at 87: Was New Jersey's First Woman Attorney,” The New York Times, September 3, 1958, pg. 33.

More information on Mary Philbrook can be found in the New Jersey Historical Society archives under Manuscript Group 572, Mary Philbrook (1872-1958), Women's rights leader papers 1843-1954


Image of Mary Philbrook from J.J. Scannell's New Jersey's First Citizens and State Guide (1917-1919), p. 399

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