Born this day in 1840: Marilla Marks Young Ricker (1840–1920), lawyer, “the prisoner’s friend,” free-thinker, and suffragist
Ricker was born Marilla Marks Young in New Durham, New Hampshire. Her father was a free-thinker and supporter of equal rights for women. He educated her in politics and philosophy and taught her to follow her own convictions.
She became a school teacher at age 16. In 1863 she married John Ricker, a wealthy farmer and supporter of equal rights who was many years her senior. Mr. Ricker died just five years into the marriage.
Now a wealthy widow, Ricker went abroad, studying languages and developing a fluency in German. While overseas she continued to explore free thought, political equality, and birth control.
Upon returning home she took up the study of law, seeing it as a tool to help society’s disadvantaged. In 1882 she was admitted to the bar of the supreme court of the District of Columbia—outranking the 18 men with whom she took the exam. In her practice she offered her services to disadvantaged and destitute prisoners and successfully challenged the “poor convict” laws that kept debtors imprisoned indefinitely. In addition to legal aid, she offered material and financial aid to the District’s prisoners and prostitutes. She was often referred to in the press as “the Prisoner’s Friend.”
In 1890 Ricker successfully petitioned New Hampshire (her home state, where she spent her summers) to admit women to the bar. She became the first woman admitted to the bar in New Hampshire. She also became the first woman to attempt to run for governor of that state in 1910, but her application was refused on grounds that without the right to vote, she did not have the right to run for office. A lifelong suffragist, Ricker protested her lack of representation every time she paid her taxes. She voted in 1871, in the town of Dover, declaring
“I come before you to declare that my sex is entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...I ask the right to pursue happiness by having a voice in that government to which I am accountable.”
Although her ballot was refused, she may have been the first woman to vote, however unsuccessfully, in the U.S.
Ricker was a member of the Woman Suffrage Association, the New Hampshire Woman Suffrage Association, and was vice-president-at-large of the National Legislative League.
Ricker also authored several books on free thought, including The Four Gospels (1911), I Don’t Know, Do You? (1915), and I Am Not Afraid, Are You? (1917).
In honor of Ricker’s trailblazing efforts for women and in recognition that New Hampshire has the first all-woman delegation to the U.S. Congress, the New Hampshire state legislature has introduced a joint resolution to direct the joint legislative historical committee to acquire a portrait of Ricker and display it in a place of honor in the state house complex.
I welcome your feedback! React, comment, subscribe below.