COLUMN — Phoebe Couzins: woman of law

Published 6:32 pm Thursday, April 15, 2021

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Many times when you learn something it springboards onto the desire to discover something else. This is the case with Phoebe Couzins, one of the first female lawyers in the United States.

On Sept. 8, 1842, Phoebe Wilson Couzins was born in St. Louis to Adaline and John E. D. Couzins. During the Civil War her father was the chief of police in the city. Couzins, as a youngster, got a front row seat of how the law works.

Her mother was involved in charitable causes and volunteered as a nurse. Both mother and daughter helped organize the Western Sanitation Commission during the Civil War, which provided medical aid to wounded soldiers in places without hospitals.

In addition, when cholera devastated St. Louis in 1849 both Mr. and Mrs. Couzins spearheaded relief efforts. Phoebe and Adaline were involved in the women’s suffrage movement with both being members of the St. Louis Women Suffrage Association. This experience highlighted Phoebe’s public speaking ability.

Consequently, before her law studies Phoebe Couzins was the Missouri delegate to the American Equal Rights Association meeting in New York. She traveled across the United States as a lecturer known for her riveting orations. Couzins was unanimously accepted by the Washington University law school application board in St. Louis which was a historic moment for women to study law at the institution.

In 1869 she began her studies at the law school and earned her L. L. B. degree in 1871. She was one of only nine students in her class. Couzins became the first woman in the U. S. to graduate from a law school as well as the first female to graduate from Washington University. A celebratory banquet was held to honor her accomplishments. Phoebe was licensed to practice law in the federal courts in Missouri, Arkansas, Utah, Kansas and the Dakota territories. She had a law practice in St. Louis yet chose public speaking as a career.

Subsequently, in 1884 Couzins testified before the U. S. House Judiciary Committee on the legal status of women and that same year President Chester Arthur appointed Couzin’s father John as U. S. Marshal of the Eastern District of Missouri. Moreover, John appointed Phoebe as one of his deputy marshals.

Once his health declined she assumed some of his duties. In 1887 after her father’s death, Phoebe was appointed as the first female U. S. Marshal by President Grover Cleveland. Her time in that position only lasted two months-she was replaced by a man. Can you believe that? 

U. S. Marshal Service (USMS) is a federal law enforcement agency that is within the U.S. Department of Justice under the direction of the attorney general. Its job is to ensure the effective operation of the judiciary and the Constitution’s integrity created by President George Washington under the Judiciary Act of 1789 it is the oldest U. S. federal law enforcement agency.

Furthermore, Phoebe Couzins served as Missouri Commissioner on the National Board of Charities and Correction. While U. S. Marshal, she wrote numerous books about law and governance. During the Civil War, Couzins worked for the Ladies Union and Society which was a membership of suffragists. Eventually, she contributed to “The Revolution” a women’s suffrage publication. In 1871 Phoebe was a delegate at the American Equal Rights Convention in which Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also attended. Afterwards, the three women formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) touring extensively around the U. S. The organization merged with the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri that same year which caused Couzins to resign because of her more radical views of the NWSA. She was not shy about expressing her dissenting views later changing her position about suffrage and temperance which was widely publicized in 1897. Afterwards, her health declined and Couzins returned to St. Louis unemployed and disabled.

Unfortunately, on Dec. 6, 1913 Phoebe Couzins died impoverished at home at 2722 Pine Street at age 71 and is buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery on Dec. 8, 1913. Couzins’s U.S. Marshal pin was buried with her. There is a stone monument at her grave courtesy of the Women’s Bar Association of St. Louis placed in her honor in 1950. In 2000, Susan Frelich Appleton, J. D.  was installed as first law professor at the Washington University School of Law as recipient of a scholarship partially named for Phoebe Couzins.

When you think about the law, law enforcement and the U. S. Marshal Service know that glass ceilings shattered many times over and despite sexism at its basest form. Phoebe Couzins, with her powerful speaking voice interpreted the law with a sense of justice and community activism.

Judy Moore is a historical columnist who resides in Wylliesburg and can be reached at