Well before winning the full rights and privileges of citizenship, women trained in the law fought alongside social reformers for legal protections encompassing women and children’s issues. One key element in this fight, providing equal access to legal representation whether or not the client could afford it, seemed a radical idea in 1886 when a Hull House resident named Florence Kelley helped form the Protective Agency for Women and Children.
Sponsored by the socially active Chicago Women’s Club, of which Jane Addams was a leader, the Protective Agency for Women and Children provided legal assistance primarily for young girls working in the factory sweatshops and for abused women fleeing their husbands. Additionally, Addams and other Protective Agency committee members were instrumental in the creation of the Illinois Juvenile Court Law of 1899, which established the first juvenile court in the country.
Merging with the Bureau of Justice to form the Legal Aid Society of Chicago in 1905 expanded the scope of the work of the Protective Agency. A group of Chicago men (including Clarence Darrow) had formed the Bureau of Justice around labor and immigration issues; joining forces gave the Protective Agency a louder voice in the legal field, part of Addams’s encouragement for women to move out of their “separate spheres” and empower themselves within the male-dominated society. The women were able to leverage the resources of a larger organization to further their work; they retained sole jurisdiction over the cases affecting women and children, with Addams serving as a “counselor.”
When in 1919 the Legal Aid Society became part of United Charities (now called Metropolitan Family Services) as the Legal Aid Bureau, it continued to focus on working women’s economic issues, even as it and expanded to other areas of importance to Addams, including housing, workers’ compensation, and immigrants’ rights.