Bertha M. Denton Snell Esq.

Happy International Women's Day! In this post we are highlighting Washington's first woman lawyer, Bertha Snell. 

Bertha M. Denton was born in Born in Ottawa, Illinois in 1873. As a young woman she spent long hours at her uncle’s law office where she read deeds, mortgages, and contracts to familiarize herself with as many aspects of the field of law as she could. When she was old enough, she studied business law in in Albany, New York before coming to Tacoma in 1899. In Washington State she served as a legislative intern and as secretary to Governor Elisha P. Ferry, the state’s first governor. At that time the Washington Territory had just become a state.

In 1893 Bertha married Marshall K. Snell, a successful trial lawyer who later went on to practice corporate law. She continued to study law and in January of 1899 Bertha took the bar exam. She passed, along with another woman from Tacoma named Elizabeth Hanna Hoover. Since Bertha was the first woman to sign the attorney’s roll authorizing her to practice law, she thus became Washington State’s first female lawyer. In an interview in the newspaper at the time, she remarked, “From Inclination and environment; in fact, I cannot remember the time when I was not more or less surrounded with the atmosphere of law, and interested in it as a study, and when the legislature of 1895 passed the act providing no persons should be excluded from practicing law on account of sex, I resolved to be admitted." Now admitted to the bar, Bertha and her husband became partners and maintained an office in the Equitable Building and later in the Puget Sound National Bank Building. In February of 1899 she went to trial to secure a divorce for her client Eva Mullins and won her first case.

She and her husband ran their law offices together for 40 years until his death in 1939. Bertha continued to practice law until one year before her death On October 21st,  1957.

The Tacoma Daily Ledger interviewed her shortly after her admission to the bar in 1899 where she remarked, “I have not sought this admission as an empty honor, but I really intend to practice law, and shall pursue my work and my studies to the end that any matter which may happily be submitted to be shall receive such consideration as I hope will prove that there is not necessarily any sex in brains.”

To access material related to Bertha Snell click on the links below.


  •  "Bertha M. Snell — Washington's first woman lawyer" Caroline Kellogg, Tacoma News Tribune May 30, 1982, p.91
  •  "Dean of Woman Lawyers On Job Here 50 Years" Tacoma News Tribune January 14, 1949, p.5
  •  "Woman Would Be Lawyers" Tacoma Daily Ledger January 8, 1899, p.2
  • "Woman To Practice Law" Tacoma Daily Ledger January 15, 1899, p.6
  • "Wins Her First Case" Tacoma Daily Ledger February 24, 1899, p.3
  • "Bertha Snell, Lawyer, Dies" Tacoma News Tribune October 21, 1957