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Trailblazer

Alice McGee — Warren County’s first female attorney — died at the age of 26 in 1895 just five years after she was admitted to the bar.

Alice McGee was, simply put, a woman ahead of her time.

And about a half century ahead of her time at that.

McGee was born on Feb. 10, 1865 to Joseph A. and Catherine McGee. Alice was the couple’s only child.

Her father was twice a Civil War veteran — he enlisted at the age of 24 in Co. B of the 111th Pennsylvania on Nov. 2, 1861 and rose to the rank of sergeant but was discharged on a surgeon’s certificate in March 1863. Such discharges were generally due to illness.

But a year and a half later he re-enlisted with Co. K, 199th Pennsylvania but was wounded at Petersburg, Virginia exactly one week before the war ended in April 1865.

Public domain photo A photo of Alice McGee that appeared in “Woman of the Century.”

McGee, though, had been involved in the petroleum industry before the war.

That industry exploded after.

That would have brought his daughter access to opportunities that less well-to-do families may not have had.

And, boy, did she take advantage of them.

She was featured in the 1893 work “Woman of the Century — Fourteen hundred-seventy biographical sketches accompanied by portraits of leading American woman in all walks of life.”

Beyond the wordy title, the text was significant — it was one of the first efforts to really highlight the work of leading American women.

And McGee was among them.

For half a century, she held the distinction of being the only woman in the county to work as an attorney.

“Most of her life was passed on a farm,” the text indicates. “She was graduated in the Warren high school in 1886. Her education included a thorough training in music and portrait painting, with a view to adopting one or the other as a profession.”

Suffice it to say that didn’t catch her interest.

“She retains all her natural fondness for those lines of work,” the sketch concludes, “although her professional life lies in the field of law. She took a course of training in the Boston School of Oratory, and taught one term in a district school.”

That’s where her acceptance of traditional 19th century gender norms ended.

“In 1887 she decided to study law, and on 16th February of that year she registered as a law student with Messrs. Wetmore, Noyes & Hinckley, in Warren. Pa., where she had been serving as librarian in the public library,” the article states. “She was admitted to the bar on 13th May, 1890. Since her admission she has practiced law successfully in Warren. She was the second woman in Pennsylvania to be admitted to the bar. The first was Mrs. Carrie Kilgore, of Philadelphia. Miss McGee is equally successful as counselor and pleader.”

But according to the Warren County Historical Society, the life of a small-town lawyer wasn’t enough for McGee.

“Finding the practice of law in a small country town slow and unprofitable,” they write about her, “Ms. McGee took up an acting career. She appeared in “The Queen of Sheba” in Buffalo, NY during the 1893-94 season.

“She was well received by the audience and proclaimed “the star” of the show.”

That’s where the career of McGee ends.

She died young — at the age of 26 in August 1895. It’s unclear what happened.

Both of her parents survived her.

By 1898, a Civil War pension application had been made on behalf of her father who was identified as an invalid. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that was due to the 1865 wound.

He died in 1919 and his wife, Catherine, died in 1919. The family is buried in Oakland Cemetery.

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