Once in a while our work on the Notable Women series turns up what another industry might call a “dry hole.” One such woman was originally considered for the Rhode Island book: Ada Lewis Sawyer, the first woman admitted to the bar in that state. Unfortunately, but not uncharacteristically, there was simply not enough information about Ada to include her in the book: not enough for a fourth or fifth- grader to be able to complete a report about her, that is.
This does not, of course, mean that her accomplishments were not extraordinary. Ada achieved her goals in spite of tremendous odds (her application to take the bar exam was referred to the state Supreme Court on the question of whether or not she, as a woman, qualified as a PERSON).
What the dearth of information about Ada reflects is the reality of most of our lives –we live our lives, we do our jobs, we endeavor to be the best we can be . . . and most of us leave very small ripples in the surface of documented history. And yet – our efforts are not without meaning. There may not be much information available about Ada’s life. But there is no doubt that her pioneering effort, and her perseverance, paved the way for those who came after her.
For the record, then, Ada Lewis Sawyer, daughter of Frank and Ada Sawyer, was born in Providence in 1892 and was graduated from Providence English High School in 1909. She went to work as a stenographer in a law office and eight years later she notified the Rhode Island bar that she was reading law with the intention of taking the bar examination. This resulted in the request for an opinion from the state’s Supreme Court from the bar examiners, whether a woman could even request admission to the bar.
Once the Court had determined that she was, in fact, a person, Ada became a lawyer in the State of Rhode Island and a partner with her mentor in the firm of Gardner and Sawyer. She carried on the practice after Mr. Gardner’s death in 1955, and finally retired in 1983 when she was 91 years old.
Ada must have loved her work, as she sometimes put in seven days a week, even at an age when many would have retired. She also loved boating and photography. Never married, she lived with her sister Bertha until her death in 1985. A friend established a scholarship in her name at Harvard Law School.
In 1964 Brown University honored Ada with a Doctor of Law degree. The citation read: “Your quiet example has inspired others to follow your path and has helped to bring about equality in fact as well as theory. We honor what you represent, and what you have done privately and publicly to serve your clients and your community.”