Attorney and suffragist Marilla Ricker (1840–1920) fought for women's rights from the philosophical perspective of a “freethinker,” relying on critical thinking rather than religion as her ethical framework. A defense attorney working in Washington, D.C., for many years, Ricker was the first woman lawyer to practice in her home state of New Hampshire. As a suffragist, she strove to set an example for society by voting, running for office, and applying for ambassadorships, long before women were legally allowed to do so.
Anative of New Durham, New Hampshire, attorney and suffragist Marilla Ricker was raised by an unusual couple, and their philosophical differences greatly influenced her life. Jonathon and Sarah Young were polar opposites: Sarah was a devout churchgoer and Free Will Baptist, which meant that she thought spiritual salvation was available to all through belief in Christ. Jonathon was a dedicated freethinker who adhered to logic and moral philosophy over religion, which he disliked intensely.
Born Marilla Marks Young on March 18, 1840, Ricker was the second of Jonathon and Sarah's four children, who included brother Joseph and sisters Helen and Adelaide. Their father preferred doing farm chores to attending church on Sundays, which was considered shocking at the time. The children were allowed to choose which parent to accompany on the Sabbath, and while Joseph and one or both of his other sisters attended church with their mother, Ricker invariably accompanied her father out to the farm. One Sunday when she was ten, she decided to make the trip to church, but while listening to the Baptist sermon, with its discussion of eternal damnation to hell, she decided that she would avoid religion, church, and any discussion of God in the future. Jonathon Young further encouraged her rebellion against orthodoxy by taking Ricker to town meetings and to trials at the local courthouse.
Jonathon Young evidenced his belief in the equality of the sexes by encouraging Ricker to become educated in politics and philosophy. He was an outspoken freethinker, part of a counter-cultural movement whose adherents insisted on the freedom to question tradition, religion, and even the validity of their feelings. The idea was to think critically when confronted with matters usually ruled by belief, determined by an outside authority, or conformed to tradition. As a freethinker, one must decide the merits of an idea for oneself. Freethinkers sought truth through direct knowledge and reasoning and rejected any form of blind faith, viewing it as “mental slavery.” This philosophy served as an important precursor to the suffrage movement; along with casting off patriarchal religious hierarchy, freethinkers generally looked to the individual and argued for political equality of the sexes, equal rights, and birth control, among other things. Among the early freethinker in North America was Anne Hutchinson, who in the midst of a hierarchical Puritan community in the mid-1600s, preached the individual's direct communion with God and declared that there was no need for ministry or church. Early suffragists would argue that women did not need men to hold authority in marriage or business.
For now, as a child growing up in southeastern New Hampshire, Ricker ran wild on the farm; in later years she would write that she could run faster, climb trees quicker, and make more noise than any of the other children in her neighborhood. Her parents encouraged her spirit and also very much appreciated her help with chores. Intellectually curious from an early age, she pestered her mother into teaching her to read very early. Even as a toddler, Ricker would tear letters and words from newspaper headlines and bring them to her parents for explanation.
When she was old enough to attend the local school, Ricker was an enthusiastic student, often running the entire two-mile route to get there and studying her course work well after dark. Although there were only four months of school in her district, she kept up her studies during the rest of the year. At age 15, Ricker entered Colby Academy, a teacher training school. She assumed she would need to earn her own living as an adult, and had decided to be a schoolteacher.
By age 16, Ricker was teaching in local New Durham schools and quickly gained a reputation as a good teacher. A tall, strong girl, she kept unruly pupils in line, and as a practicing freethinker, she had her students read from nonreligious texts, a departure from the tradition of using the Bible as a reader. When she was informed by school elders that she was required to use the Bible in her lessons. Ricker gave in, with a wry twist. The very next morning, the young teacher told her students, “We will now read the startling and truthful account of Jonah, whilst he was a sojourner in the sub-marine hotel.” All in all, she was successful, teaching in her district through 1863.
With the onset of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, Ricker's brother Joseph enlisted in the Union Army, and Ricker tried to sign up as an army nurse. When she was rejected because of her youth and her lack of both training and experience, she considered disguising herself as a man and enlisting as a soldier. She thought better of it, however, and resigned herself to becoming a teacher. As a consolation, she sent money to soldiers, knitted socks, and wrote patriotic letters to support the war effort. Sadly, Ricker's brother was killed in battle the following year. Her exuberant spirits were quelled for the first time, and the world seemed different ever after.
During Ricker's generation, most women married when they were in their mid-teens, and by 1863, the 23-yearold Ricker was viewed by many as a spinster. Then she met and married John Ricker, a wealthy farmer and real estate tycoon from the nearby town of Dover, New Hampshire. Resembling her father in many ways, John Ricker was 33 years her senior and liberal-minded, believing in the equality of women. For five years the couple was happily married; John died in 1868, leaving his 28-year-old wife independently wealthy.
No longer needing to work for a living, Ricker's life took a new direction. The following year she attended the first National Woman Suffrage Association convention, a gathering organized by now-famous suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906). It is likely that she was greatly influenced by the proceedings because the following year, in 1870, she attempted to vote in a Dover town election. Women ought to be able to vote, she reasoned, so why not just do it, even if one's vote is thrown out. Ricker made a habit of voting, and she engaged in other forms of political protest for the rest of her life.
In 1872, Ricker traveled to Europe, spending four years in Germany, learning the language in order to study European freethinkers; she also learned a great deal about that bastion of patriarchy, the Roman Catholic Church. Little is known of her years there, but when she returned home to New England, she headed south for Washington D.C., in order to study law.
Ricker's decision to study the law can also be traced back to her 1869 meeting with leading suffragists and professional women of the day at the National Woman Suffrage Association. There she may have met Belva Ann Lockwood, a pioneering female law-school graduate and the first woman admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court. Lockwood was instrumental in creating a network of women attorneys who supported each other's work. They knew each other, belonged to the same community and professional groups, and helped each other progress in their field.
While Ricker may have been a part of this network, she was mentored early on in her career by attorney Albert Riddle. Riddle was one of the first white professors at all-black Howard University Law School, and he became legendary due to his advocacy on behalf of Howard's first graduates. He also supported Lockwood in her application of admission to the U.S. Supreme Court bar. Ricker worked for Riddle while studying law. Four years later, she passed the District of Columbia bar with the highest score among her 25 co-applicants, all of whom were men. She was now 42.
Now qualified to practice the law, Ricker went to work for a leading freethinker, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, who was a prominent politician, a brilliant criminal defense lawyer, and an advocate for blacks and women. She made her first courtroom appearance assisting Ingersoll with a major case involving the U.S. Postal Service: they were defending mail delivery contractors and subcontractors accused of defrauding the government while overseeing rural mail delivery routes. Although the government case was presented by three prosecutors and was meticulously documented, Ingersoll won and the defendants were acquitted. It was a heady start to Ricker's law career. She came to idolize Ingersoll, offering to purchase his complete works, a 12-volume set of books, for any library in New Hampshire that wanted them.
A woman of independent means, Ricker quickly became known as the Prisoner's Friend due to her compassionate help for the poorest criminals and the fact that she rarely, if ever, charged for her services. She offered counsel to those already in prison, taking on cases for low-income individuals and frequently paying for the defense of those whose cases she could not take. She worked in Lockwood's office for a time, becoming part of a dashing trio of lady lawyers, known for their formidable courtroom skill and playful public personas. A decade later, along with the help her colleagues, Ricker would be admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.
While most of Ricker's legal work is lost to history, several prominent cases made the news. She challenged a long-standing practice of the D.C. police court justices, ostensibly called the “poor convict's act,” which sentencing petty offenders to short jail terms, with a fine. The reality, however, was that most poor defendants could not pay and so were kept in jail indefinitely. She successfully argued the case in front of the D.C. supreme court, rendering the practice illegal. Representing a well-established African-American barber, Ricker also attempted, though unsuccessfully, to overturn a law prohibiting businesses from opening on Sundays.
Ricker worked in both her home state of New Hampshire and in the District of Colombia. In 1879, she got a hearing with her state's governor and petitioned him to rectify conditions faced by state prisoners; she also wrote legislation that would enable prisoners to submit sealed letters to the governor and thereby bypass the warden. In Washington, D.C., she was appointed by U.S. President Chester A. Arthur to be a notary public, thereby able to take depositions directly from prisoners. She was also the first woman appointed Commissioner and Examiner in Chancery by the D.C. court, allowing her to be hear certain types of cases. In 1890, Ricker became the first woman attorney in her home state, opening the New Hampshire bar to women in the process. She won her argument for admission by citing the rules that ten other states already used in admitting women to practice.
Ricker devoted her considerable energies to her legal defense practice, but also to the Republican Party and the cause of women's suffrage. Along with voting in hometown elections at every opportunity, she wrote letters to the authorities, stating the constitutional basis for her right to do so. In 1897, she applied (unsuccessfully) for the ambassadorship to Colombia, for which she was eminently qualified and widely supported. That same year, she ran for Congress, unsuccessfully, in a special election to fill the seat of a New Hampshire congressman who had died. Later, she ran for governor of the state, again without expectation of success. She reasoned that people would get used to the idea of a woman as governor, and one day, it would happen. Amid these major activities, she took on other projects, traveling to California in 1887, writing letters and giving interviews across the nation, giving talks on political issues of the day, and working for the Republican ticket in 1888.
After the turn of the 20th century, Ricker returned to her home in Dover, New Hampshire, and spent the next two decades traveling and writing. She authored several books and many articles on free thought and women's suffrage, always adding her characteristic emphasis rimental influence of religion on society. “A steeple is no more to be excluded from taxation than a smokestack,” she often inscribed when signing a book for a friend or colleague.
Ricker lived to vote legally, just months before her death on November 12, 1920, at age 80. She had never lost faith that women would gain the vote, and much more. Every year when she paid her taxes, she had accompanied payment with a demand for the right to vote. While some suffragists grew bitter after decades of effort with little result, Ricker lived her beliefs in free thought and equality to the end.
Ricker, Marilla, I Don't Know, Do You?, The Roycrofters, 1916.
Willard, Frances E., and Mary A. Livermore, editors, A Woman of the Century: 1,470 Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life, C.W. Moulton, 1893.
Granite Monthly, Volume 52, 1920, “Mrs. Marilla M. Ricker,” p. 493.
Law Student's Helper, Volume 1, 1893, “Marilla M. Ricker,” p. 304.
New York Daily Tribune, March 16, 1897, “A Remarkable Woman, Mrs. Marilla M. Ricker, of Dover, N.H., Who Asks to Be Appointed Minister Columbia,” p. 5.
Women's Legal History website, http://wlh-static.law.stanford.edu/ (January 1, 2017), LeeAnn Richey, “Reading between the Lines: Marilla Ricker in the Struggle for Women's Rights.”❑