Ada Sawyer (1892 – 1985)

Ada Sawyer was Rhode Island’s first female lawyer. She went to Providence English High School, where she graduated with honors in 1909. The day after graduating, she was hired as a stenographer at the law office of Charles E. Salisbury and Percy Winchester Gardner. While at the firm, Ada showed an interest in “reading law.” Her intelligence and drive impressed Gardner such that he encouraged her to pursue the profession. In 1917, Gardner registered her as an applicant to take the state’s bar examination. Before Ada was able to take the examination, the board of examiners noted she was a female. The examiners convened and rejected her application on the premise that the word “person” written in the rules identified only those of the male gender. Legal squabbling commenced almost immediately and before long the case was heard by the state Supreme Court. A final decision ruled in Ada’s favor. Ada took the bar examination on Sept. 24, 1920, becoming the first woman in the state to do so. Her acceptance to the state bar came just two and a half months after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave women the right to vote. Working until she was 91, Ada garnered many awards, but one of the finest tributes was that of the Rhode Island Woman’s Bar Association — its award for excellence is named the Ada Lewis Sawyer award.

Russell J. DeSimone

Scroll to Top