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Marilla Ricker, 1840-1920

“A steeple is no more to be excluded from taxation than a smoke stack” – Marilla Ricker
(written on the fly-leaf of Milne Special Collections’ copy of The Four Gospels)

Born in New Durham, NH, Marilla Ricker was brought up a “free thinker,” a suffragist and a Whig. After a course at Colby Academy in New London, N.H., she taught school until her marriage to John Ricker, of Dover, N.H., a well-to-do farmer, who died in 1868, leaving her a wealthy widow. She went abroad in 1872, spending some years in study in Germany and thoroughly mastering the language of that country. She began the study of law in Washington, 1876 and was admitted to the bar of the supreme court of the District of Columbia in 1882, taking the examination with eighteen men, all of whom she outranked. She practiced in Washington for many years and was known as the “prisoners’ friend,” from her constant habit of visiting jails and prisons, and applying for releases and pardons, and supplying prisoners with reading matter, writing material and other comforts. She often worked for her clients for free. In 1884 she was appointed examiner in chancery by the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, and also U.S commissioner, in which capacity she heard many cases. She became New Hampshire’s first woman lawyer in July 1890, when she was admitted to the bar of the state.

Although she was certified to try cases in front of the US Supreme Court and even ran for state governor, Marilla Ricker was still unable to vote. Across America, the suffragist movement followed close behind the abolitionist movement and women like Ricker worked tirelessly to gain voting rights. She was reportedly the first woman in NH to attempt to register to vote, for as a property owner in Dover, NH, Ricker believed that, if she paid property taxes, she should be able to vote. She went on registering, and being denied the vote, until 1920 when just months before her death, she voted legally for the first time.

Marilla Ricker wrote four “free thought” books, all of which can be found in Milne Special Collections: The Four Gospels (1911); A Job Lot of Anti-Suffragists ; Anti-Woman Suffragists ; What Do Ministers Know? ; How Can We ‘take’ Christ? (1911); I Don’t Know, Do You? (1916), and I’m Not Afraid, Are You? (1917). A 1991 film by Catherine O’Brien, True Light: The Life of Marilla Ricker, is also available.