Pearl Hart: A Life Dedicated to Protecting Civil Liberties

In recognition of Pride month, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism (Commission) is featuring biographies of LGBTQ+ legal professionals who have promoted a culture of civility and inclusion within the Illinois legal community.

In addition to learning about Pearl Hart, check out our features with Thomas Chiola and Nancy Katz.

Pearl Hart

Pearl HartPearl Hart was born in Traverse City, Michigan in 1890 as the fifth and only American-born daughter in a family of Russian Jewish Immigrants. Shortly after her birth, Hart’s family moved to 1547 S Kedzie in the Southwest side of Chicago. Here, her father, David, served as an orthodox rabbi and her mother, Rebecca, was a social worker.

At the age of 14, Hart left school to work and soon began taking night classes at The John Marshall Law School. In 1914, Hart passed the bar and from 1915-1917 she served as the first public defender assigned to the Women’s Court in Chicago. Throughout her career, she focused on the needs of women, children, and immigrants. At the core of Hart’s legal and social activism was a commitment to an individual’s civil liberties.

In the 1950s, Hart put herself at the center of the red scare defending naturalized immigrants accused of subversive activities. She went so far as to appeal U.S. v. Witkovich to the Supreme Court and in 1957, the court ruled in her favor.

Throughout the ’60s, she was one of the few attorneys in Chicago that defended LGBTQ+ people. She defended gay men that were arrested in bar raids, those accused of soliciting sex in public, and those entrapped to do so. Over the years, Pearl Hart helped hundreds of LGBTQ+ people navigate the criminal justice system.

Despite the disposition of the cases she commonly worked, Hart defended her clients without engaging in bribery and other forms of corruption. Her reputation earned her the title “Guardian Angel of the Chicago’s Gay Community.”

During her life, Hart also helped found countless organizations including Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, the Committee to Defend the Foreign Born, the Cancer Prevention Center of Chicago, and perhaps, most notably, the Mattachine Midwest, Chicago’s first successful gay rights organization. She served as the legal counsel for the Mattachine Midwest from its inception until her death.

Pearl Hart was a respected mentor to female law students and lawyers. She was a successful public speaker, addressing groups that spanned from national conventions to neighborhood organizations. Hart also devoted countless pro bono hours to causes that she supported.

In her personal life, Hart remained publicly closeted until 1965 when she came out at the inaugural meeting of the Mattachine Midwest.

Hart died on March 22, 1975, at Northwestern Hospital of pancreatic cancer complicated by heart disease. Her legal career spanned 61 years and was marked by unmatched compassion, integrity, and an unwavering commitment to justice.

Posthumously, Hart was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame and awarded a Chicago Tribune Marker of Distinction.

At a memorial meeting after her death, a close friend of Hart said, “Her mission was to defend the underdog – in a sense recognizing the illness of the overdog as well. Pearl Hart is certainly dead. She is dead because she lived first.”

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