Mary Philbrook


Mary Philbrook


Twice the New Jersey Supreme Court mocked Mary Philbrook for insisting she was a full citizen. First in 1894 when she sued for the right to practice law. Then in 1911, when she represented a would-be voter. In between, Philbrook wrote a report that had more influence on federal power than most men. 

Philbrook was the highest-paid woman on the staff of the Dillingham Commission, a sweeping federal study that resulted in the draconian immigration policies we still endure. She led a team that went undercover to study “white slavery” - prostitution and sex trafficking.

In her book Inventing the Immigration Problem, Katherine Benton-Cohen @guprofbc documents Philbrook’s authorship of the report “Importation and Harboring of Women for Immoral Purposes.” The report led directly to the White-Slave Traffic Act, better known as the Mann Act.

Philbrook busted myths in her report: sex trafficking wasn’t a global monopoly run by Jews; not all women doing sex work had been forced into it; not only women were being trafficked. Still, she saw it as an evil that demanded policing. Policing by the federal government.

The Mann Act’s impact went far beyond the immigration context that Philbrook and the Dillingham Commission worked in. Feds used it to prosecute child pornography, but also to persecute interracial sex. It was instrumental in the expansion of federal surveillance, culminating in the creation of the FBI.

Did Philbrook, a life-long feminist, find it ironic that she had contributed to federal policing of private life?  The Mann Act was hardly her only contribution. In addition to pathbreaking for women lawyers and her suffrage lawsuit, Philbrook went to France during World War I as a lawyer for the American Red Cross. When she returned she joined the National Woman’s Party and devoted the rest of her life to passing a state and federal Equal Rights Amendment. 

The ERA had powerful opposition from the outset. Welfare reformers like the Consumers’ League feared it would undo women-only labor laws they had worked hard to pass. Male labor unions hoped to expand those laws to men, and in the meanwhile appreciated that they reduced competition from women.

NJ politicians were reluctant to anger labor, the Consumers’ League, and the League of Women Voters by supporting the ERA. Yet Philbrook believed passionately in equality feminism. She lobbied for the ERA in Washington and Trenton into the 1940s, persevering as she was repeatedly told it wasn’t needed. 

In 1944, NJ Governor Walter Edge dismissed Philbrook, saying that the 19th Amdt sufficed as a promise of equal rights. “Personally,” he added, “I think much of the agitation in this connection is absolutely unnecessary and I might add that thousands of intelligent women indicate a similar viewpoint.”

By this point Philbrook is 71 years old. For 50 years the men of New Jersey have been telling her she is a fool.

She pressed on, determined that the NJ Constitution state clearly that women were equal under the law.

When New Jersey undertook a constitutional rewrite in the 1940s, she couldn’t win the language she wanted: “No distinction shall be created under the law between the rights of men and women to vote, to hold public office, or to enjoy equally all civil, political, economic and religious rights and privileges." 

But thanks to last-minute maneuvering by the chair of the Constitutional convention, an ally, she won a compromise. “Whenever in this Constitution the term ‘person,’ ‘persons,’ ‘people,’ or any other personal pronoun is used, the same should be taken to include both sexes.” In addition, all references to men in the Constitution were struck, and “person,” “persons,” or “people” substituted.

Philbrook died in 1958, still doubtful that the language was strong enough to protect women from discrimination in every circumstance. Twenty years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that it was. “Under our recent 1947 Constitution women were granted rights of employment and property protection equal to those enjoyed by men. This was accomplished by changing the first two words of Art. I, par. I from ‘All men’ to ‘All persons.’”

The decision was unanimous. It had taken New Jersey women 200 years to win back rights they had at the state’s founding. 



Daily Suffragist


January 3, 2021


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Daily Suffragist, “Mary Philbrook,” Daily Suffragist, accessed July 14, 2024,

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