In 1904, a lawyer named Richard B. Kelly moved his family from Anniston to Birmingham. His daughter, Maud, fresh out of high school, becomes his stenographer. Soon she became fascinated with law and began to study it on her own. Although the idea of a female lawyer was unheard of in Alabama at the time, Maud McLure Kelly decided that was exactly what she wanted to be.
Admission to the University of Alabama Law School was opened to women in the late 1890s, but when Kelly applied and was accepted in 1907, she was only its second student. Her immersion in her father’s law books paid off immediately, as she scored so well on the entrance exam that she was admitted as a senior, earning her law degree within a year. and graduating with honors.
When Kelly graduated from law school in 1908, she encountered an immediate obstacle to her intended career. The Alabama Code stated that a law school graduate could be admitted to the state bar upon showing “his” degree as a credential. A law school friend who was a state legislator sponsored a revision of the law to read “his or her”, paving the way for Kelly to become the first woman to practice law in Alabama.
“She is a key figure in the ability of women to advance and be heard in the legal profession in Alabama,” said Augusta Dowd, vice president and managing attorney at Birmingham White firm Arnold & Dowd. “Even today, law is a very masculine profession, so Maud McLure Kelly’s example continues to help women know they can aim for anything and get there.”
Upon opening her practice in Birmingham, Kelly began representing a wide variety of clients in civil and criminal matters and was known as an advocate for the poor and underserved. In 1914, she was certified to argue cases before the United States Supreme Court – one of the first Southern women to earn this distinction.
Kelly also became a local and statewide leader in the campaign for women’s suffrage, helping to organize the Birmingham and Alabama Equal Suffrage Associations. At the time this right was extended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1919, Kelly was living in the nation’s capital and working as an attorney for the United States Department of the Interior.
Family obligations—her father’s health was declining and two of her three brothers were suffering from wounds they had sustained in World War I—brought Kelly back to Alabama in 1924. Resuming her private practice and the travels it involved, she began conducting historical research and compiling genealogical and other information from across the state.
Kelly left the legal profession in 1931 – the Alabama Online Encyclopedia notes that she was “able to live on certain wise investments” – and spent more than a decade volunteering for civic causes and charities and to continue to build his personal library of manuscripts, documents and maps. In 1943, she accepted a position with the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH), where she worked until her retirement in 1956.
As Acquisitions Officer for ADAH, Kelly has been credited with significantly expanding the department’s archival holdings. She also served as editor of the Alabama Historical Quarterly and drafted legislation that gave ADAH authority over the state’s public records.
Kelly died in 1973, aged 85. She donated her extensive personal library to Samford University, where it is part of the University Library’s Special Collections Department.
In 2002, the State Bar of Alabama launched the Maud McLure Kelly Award, which annually recognizes “a female attorney who has had a lasting impact on the legal profession and who has been a pioneer and leader within the state”. The first prize was awarded to Janie Shores, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of Alabama. The 2020 recipient was Augusta Dowd, who called the award “the premier honor that can be bestowed on a practicing female lawyer in Alabama,” and said it was appropriate that the award be named after Kelly.
“He was an amazing person,” Dowd said. “I have enormous respect for Maud McLure Kelly. Her life and career continue to be an inspiration to women lawyers in particular, but also to all women in Alabama.