Marilla Ricker

On this date in 1840, Marilla Marks Ricker (née Young) was born in New Durham, New Hampshire. She became a trail-blazing attorney, abolitionist, humanitarian and suffragist. Her father, Jonathan Young, reportedly related to Mormon prophet Brigham Young, was a freethinker and proponent of women’s rights who took her to courtrooms and town meetings.

As a child she witnessed a “fiery” sermon about hell at her mother’s Free Will Baptist church, she later wrote. (Boston Business Folio, 1895.) “Do you wonder that I, a child of ten years, said to my father, who was a freethinker, infidel, atheist, or whatever else you please to call him: ‘I hate my mother’s church. I will not go there again.’ “

She started teaching at age 16, refusing to read from the bible during class, instead preferring literary works, including those of Emerson. When the school committee told her bible reading was mandatory, she refused to comply and left the profession.

In 1863 she married John Ricker, a man 33 years her senior. He died five years later, leaving an estate that made her financially independent. She studied law in Washington, D.C., determined to help the downtrodden. She passed the bar with the highest grade of anyone admitted in 1882. Her first public courtroom appearance was as assistant counsel to Robert G. Ingersoll and became known as the “prisoner’s friend,” successfully challenging a district law that indefinitely confined poor criminals unable to pay fees.

Ricker in 1871 had the distinction of being the first U.S. woman to vote using the argument that women were “electors” under the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1890 she won the right of women to practice law in New Hampshire. She was admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar in 1891. She was denied the right to run for governor of New Hampshire in 1910 on a woman’s rights platform by the state attorney general. Her books include The Four Gospels (1911), I Don’t Know, Do You? (1916) and I Am Not Afraid, Are You? (1917).

In I Am Not Afraid she wrote: “A religious person is a dangerous person. He may not become a thief or a murderer, but he is liable to become a nuisance. He carries with him many foolish and harmful superstitions, and he is possessed with the notion that it is his duty to give these superstitions to others.” (D. 1920)

Freedom From Religion Foundation