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Dorsett, Martha (1851–1918)

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Martha Angle Dorset at the time of her graduation from the University of Michigan, ca. 1875. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Martha Angle Dorsett is best known for being Minnesota's first female lawyer. After being denied the right to practice law in Minnesota in 1876, she successfully petitioned the Minnesota legislature to change the state law governing attorney admissions. With the law amended to permit admission regardless of sex, Martha went on to practice law and remained active politically throughout the rest of her life in Minneapolis.

Born on April 2, 1851, in Randolph New York, Martha Angle eventually left the East Coast to attend the University of Michigan, graduating with a bachelor of philosophy degree in 1875. Afterward she enrolled in the Iowa College of Law (later Drake University Law School)—just five years after Ada Kepley became the first woman to graduate from any law school in the United States. Angle graduated from law school in 1876 and married her fellow Michigan and Iowa classmate Charles Dorsett the same year.

Angle—now Dorsett—entered the Iowa Bar and relocated to Minneapolis soon after. In 1876 both she and her husband petitioned Hennepin County for admission to practice law in Minnesota. Charles was admitted to practice, but Judge Young of Hennepin County’s Court of Common Pleas denied Martha’s application, citing the Minnesota statute regarding legal practice as prohibiting her entry. The law at the time read that “Any male person of the age of twenty-one years, of good moral character, and who possesses the requisite qualifications of learning and ability, is entitled to admission to practice in all the courts of this State.”

Like many of the first female attorneys across the country, Dorsett then worked to change the language of the state law to allow for entry for all applicants regardless of sex. Three bills were introduced at her behest in the state legislature: two to remove any discriminatory language from the state statute regarding attorney licensure (one in the Senate, and another in the House), and another allowing just her to practice law in the event that the first bills did not pass.

Newspaper coverage regarding bills introduced at Dorsett’s request in the Minnesota legislature noted that debate on the bill was “half jocular” and hinted that passage of the broader bill, opening legal practice to all women in the state, was not guaranteed. Indeed, the broader bill, S.F. 12, failed twice in the House before successfully passing on February 27, 1877. Governor John Pillsbury signed it into law on March 1, 1877. Dorsett successfully entered the Hennepin County Bar in January of 1878, and officially became the first female attorney admitted to practice law in Minnesota.

Dorsett’s active civic life continued after her fight in the legislature. She practiced law briefly, then went on to co-own a printing press and catering business with her husband. Outside of her business activity she was an active member of the Minnesota suffragist community. She served on the boards of both the Political Equality Club of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association. She even fought for suffrage at the national level, serving as the vice-president at large of the American Women’s Suffrage Association in the 1880s. A statement by the Political Equality Club of Minneapolis after her death referenced Dorsett’s support for state suffrage, noting that she used her own printing press to make copies for the organizations. This involvement did have a downside: house fires at the Dorsett home tragically led to the loss of records for both the Political Equality Club as well as the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association.

In addition to running a business and her suffragist work, Dorsett served on the board of Martha Ripley's Maternity Hospital, raised five children, and was active in the Minnesota Prohibition Party, where her husband ran as the party candidate for Minnesota governor three times. Near the end of her life Dorsett became a Christian Science practitioner and passed away in March of 1918 at the age of sixty-six, just two years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

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9761 Bimu 2
Angle, Martha [d. Mar. 8, 1918 : Ph.B. 1875], necrology files
University of Michigan Alumni records
Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Description: Research file on Martha Dorsett compiled by the University of Michigan alumni department.

“Annual Meeting and Election of Officers of the Woman Suffragists.” Minneapolis Daily Tribune, September 6, 1885.

“Convention Ended. The Female Suffragists Elect Officers and Complete Their Work.” St. Paul Daily Globe, October 16, 1885.

“District Court. Mrs. Martha Angel Dorsett Admitted to Practice in the Minnesota Courts. The First and Only Lady Lawyer Ever Admitted to the Bar of the State.” Minneapolis Tribune, January 11, 1878.

Dorsett, Martha A. Death certificate. Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Minnesota, March 8, 1918. State file #1918-MN-022952.

“The Female Suffragists.” St. Paul Daily Globe, Nov. 3, 1887.

“For Women’s Rights, The Minnesota Suffrage Association Meets.” Minneapolis Tribune, Oct. 24, 1889.

General Laws of the State of Minnesota, Chapter 123. St. Paul: Ramaley & Cunningham, 1877.

Law School Materials, Box 3, Folder 7
Drake University Law School Alumni Directory, 1939
Drake University Archives, Cowles Library, Des Moines
Description: Alumni directory listing Martha Angle as an 1876 graduate.

“Legislative Gossip.” Minneapolis Tribune, January 18, 1877.

“Martha A. Dorsett is Taken by Death.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, March 9, 1918.

Minnesota House of Representatives. Journal of the House Representatives of the Nineteenth Session of the Legislature of the State of Minnesota. St. Paul: Ramaley & Cunningham, 1877.

Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. General Laws of the State of Minnesota for 1877, Chapter 123.

Minnesota Senate. Journal of The Senate of the Nineteenth Session of the Legislature of the State of Minnesota. St. Paul: Ramaley & Cunningham, 1877.

“The Minnesota Women Suffragists Assembled in Annual Convention.” Minneapolis Daily Tribune, October 17, 1885.

Morello, Karen Berger. The Invisible Bar: The Woman Lawyer in America: 1638 to the Present. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

P1503, Box 1
Political Equality Club of Minneapolis
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Biographical Sketch of Martha Dorsett written by association after her death in 1918.

“State of Minnesota, County of Hennepin, Court of Common Pleas. In the Matter of the Application of Martha Angle Dorsett to be Admitted to Practice as an Attorney and Counselor at Law in Said Court.” Syllabi 1, no. 1 (October 21, 1876): 5–6.

“Woman Suffrage. The Minneapolis Association Elects Officers for the Next Year.” St. Paul Daily Globe, Nov. 6, 1889.

“Women’s Rights.” Minneapolis Tribune, January 16, 1877.

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Turning Point

On January 11, 1878, Martha Dorsett becomes the first woman admitted to practice law in Minnesota.


April 2, 1851

Martha Angle is born in Randolph, New York.


Angle graduates from the University of Michigan with a bachelor of philosophy degree.


Angle graduates from the Iowa College of Law and marries Charles Dorsett

September 1876

The Hennepin County Court of Common Pleas denies Martha Dorsett entry to the Minnesota Bar.

February 27, 1877

S.F. 12 passes, allowing attorneys of any sex to practice law.

January 11, 1878

Dorsett is admitted to practice law in Hennepin County.


Dorsett is elected president of the Minneapolis Woman Suffrage Association on September 5. She becomes the corresponding secretary of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association on October 16.


Dorsett retires from legal practice.

October 23, 1889

Dorsett is elected treasurer of the Minnesota Woman’s Suffrage Association.

November 5, 1889

Dorsett is elected treasurer of the Minneapolis Woman’s Suffrage Association.

March 8, 1918

Dorsett passes away at age sixty-six.