Emma Gillett, First Female Notary 1881
In 1881, Emma Gillett was the first woman to be appointed notary public in the United States, for the District of Columbia, by President James A. Garfield.
Emma Gillett, Teacher
She was a lawyer and women’s rights activist who played an important role in advancing legal studies for women. She was born Emma Millinda Gillett in 1852 to homesteaders in Princeton, Wisconsin. Her father was a lawyer and justice of the peace. Following his death in 1854, she moved with her mother and sister to live with family in Girard, Pennsylvania, where she was educated. In 1870, she graduated from the all-female Lake Erie Seminary in Ohio and served as a teacher in Pennsylvania public schools for ten years.
She was disappointed in the low wages paid to single women teachers. Following the death of her mother in 1875, she moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue a legal career. She apprenticed under Supreme Court attorney and women’s advocate Belva Lockwood. Lockwood had gained national attention in the 1870s in her struggle to join the Supreme Court Bar.
Emma Gillett, Lawyer
Emma Gillett graduated from Howard University Law School in 1883, and passed the bar the same year. She joined the Supreme Court Bar in 1890.
She became a chancery examiner and joined a D.C. law firm headed by Watson J. Newton, whom she met while working as a notary public. She stayed for the rest of her career, practicing real estate, pension and probate law, making partner in 1900, with the law firm renamed Newton and Gillett.
Emma Gillett, Legal Educator
In 1896, with her colleague Ellen Spencer Mussey, the two opened the Women’s Law Class at Mussey’s law office. Mussey taught Constitutional Law, Contracts and Personal Property, while Gillett taught Blackstone, Bills and Notes and Domestic Relations.
The legal education program grew and was incorporated in 1898 as the co-educational Washington College of Law (WCL), the first law school founded by women, now merged with American University.
She served as President of the Women’s Bar Association in 1921, and at her death in 1927 was Dean Emeritus of the Washington College of Law and Chairman of the Legal Branch of the National Woman’s Party. She never married.
Emma Gillett Notary Appointment by President Garfield
[Department of Justice stamp in top left corner]
James A. Garfield,
President of the United States,
To all who shall see these Presents, Greeting:
Know Ye, That, reposing special trust and confidence in the Integrity and Ability of Emma M. Gillett, I do appoint her to be Notary Public for the District of Columbia; and do authorize and empower her to execute and fulfill the duties of that Office according to Law, and to have and to hold the said Office, with all of the powers, privileges, and emoluments thereunto of right appertaining unto her, the said Emma M. Gillett, for the term of five years from the date hereof.
In testimony whereof, I have caused these Letters to be made Patent and the seal of the United States to be hereunto affixed.
Given under my hand, at the City of Washington, the 9th day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eighty-one, and of the Independence of the United States of America the 105th.
[Seal of the United States]
By the President: James A. Garfield
Secretary of State: James Blaine
James A. Garfield, the 20th President, took office on March 4, 1881 and only served a few months before being shot by an assassin at a D.C. train station on July 2, 1881.
1. Emma Gillett, by The Washington Times, Washington, D. C. Sunday, June 22, 1902 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
2. James A. Garfield, by Unknown; part of Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons