Tiera Farrow

Author: 
Kansas City Public Library
  • Date of Birth: May 27, 1880
  • Place of Birth: Columbus, Indiana
  • Claim to Fame: co-founder, Women's Bar Association of Kansas City and Women's Bar Association of Missouri
  • Also Known As: the "Dean of Women Lawyers"
  • Date of Death: November 9, 1971
  • Place of Death: Mission, Kansas
  • Final Resting Place: Garnett Cemetery, Garnett, Kansas

On November 8, 1917, Mary Tiera Farrow and 20 other female lawyers formed the Women's Bar Association of Kansas City. Farrow was one of the few women in the United States who successfully practiced law in the early 1900s, overcoming the discrimination women faced in the legal field and society generally. Having been denied the professional benefits of any existing bar association, she led a group of 20 women in establishing their own bar in Kansas City. It was just one of many pioneering acts that Farrow undertook for herself and for women's rights at large.

Born Mary Tiera Farrow in Indiana in 1880, she moved with her family to Delphos, Kansas, in 1885. Her personal hero was Abraham Lincoln, who had been a lawyer before he entered politics. From an early age, Farrow was determined to follow in his footsteps, despite the virtual nonexistence of female lawyers. At the age of 10, she opened her own ice cream parlor alongside her father's general store.

Always patriotic, Farrow longed to fight in the Spanish-American War, but of course, women were not allowed. Instead, she convinced her parents to let her attend business school in Kansas City, Missouri, so that she could become a stenographer. After being denied entrance at several law schools, she finally was allowed to enroll at the Kansas City School of Law in 1901. There she learned the full extent of discriminatory laws against women.

Farrow's greatest challenge came after graduating in 1903. Her fiancé demanded that she work as a clerk for his firm rather than practice law herself, so she ended the engagement. She found work assisting other attorneys but only earned a meager salary. In this position, however, she became the first woman to argue a case before the Kansas Supreme Court, and in 1907 she was elected Kansas City's first city treasurer and served two terms.

After a trip through Europe and North Africa, she and Anna Donahue, another Kansas City School of Law graduate, opened Kansas City's first woman-owned law firm. Work was plentiful, but the pay was meager because their clients either lacked money or assumed that female lawyers would be willing to work for much less money than male lawyers. In 1916, not long after Donahue left the firm and moved to New York, Farrow took on her most memorable case. She defended a woman named Clara Schweiger, who had murdered her husband in the courthouse corridor after divorce proceedings ruled in his favor. The local newspapers treated the case as an exciting novelty and noted that it was the first trial in American history in which a female lawyer defended a female client in a murder case. Farrow skillfully persuaded the jury to rule it a second, rather than first, degree murder. Mrs. Schweiger only ended up serving two years in prison.

Even after amassing considerable legal experience, Farrow was still barred from joining the all-male Kansas City Bar Association. Undeterred, she organized a group of women who had also obtained law degrees to discuss the possibility of forming their own bar association. Farrow was still the only woman in Kansas City who actually had her own practice. The United States had entered World War I, and the women decided that the stated goal of their organization would be provide free legal advice to those in need during the time of war. They hoped that this pretext would later gain momentum for a state bar association for women.

Some women at the meeting dissented, arguing that women should demand the right to join the existing men's bar associations. Undeterred, Farrow and 20 others founded the Woman's Bar Association of Kansas City on November 8, 1917. They then worked with a similar bar association in St. Louis, and on March 27, 1918, the Women's Bar Association of Missouri was founded.

Women of Kansas City School of Law
Women of the Kansas City School of Law, including Susan Mandell, Glady Asel, Anna Mae Campbell, Mrs. Rogers, Emma Chaquette, Miss Farrow, Elsie Asel, Esther Johnson, Clara Austin, & Louise Byers (lower center). Courtesy of the Kansas City Museum.

Alongside these accomplishments, Farrow helped in recruiting for the National Guard Association for World War I, and she drove an ambulance for the National League of Women's Service. Following the war, she took a break from the law and went to the University of Illinois and earned a degree in sociology, followed by a master's degree from Columbia University. She then practiced criminology for a time before returning to her law firm. In the 1920s, she and a partner taught introductory legal classes to women aspiring to enter the professional field, effectively becoming one of the first female instructors at a professional school. She went on to serve as the first female judge for the Kansas City Municipal Court. When the United States entered World War II, Farrow joined the Red Cross and offered free legal service to soldiers and their families.

Tiera Farrow never grew famous outside of the Kansas City area, but her accomplishments were quite influential in the legal profession. While female lawyers would have to wait another 50 years to gain equal rights to men in the legal profession, women in the state of Missouri at least had access to their own bar association after 1917; one of the first of its kind in the nation. Women in other states followed in their footsteps and slowly pried their way into the legal profession. Tiera Farrow certainly earned her nickname that was coined by the 1950s: the "Dean of Women Lawyers." Retiring in 1957, she finally entered a less-eventful phase of her life. She died in 1971 at the age of 91.

Acknowledgement: 

This article has been adapted from an article published at KChistory.org.

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