Pearl Hart's Life and Work

  • Born in Traverse City, Michigan April 7, 1890 – daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants

  • Family moved to Chicago in 1892 when her father, a Rabbi, accepted position overseeing kosher slaughter of animals in the Union Stockyards

  • Entered John Marshall Law School 1912, admitted to bar in 1914- one of the first woman attorneys in Chicago to specialize in criminal law

  • Began career as adult probation officer 1915-1917

  • In 1913, Illinois created a specialized branch of the Municipal Court called the Morals Court (later to be renamed the Women’s Court) which dealt with issues such as child abandonment, child abuse, and prostitution. Hart was the first woman lawyer to be appointed as public defender in Morals Court. Here she advocated for social change for women, children, and the marginalized. When she started 90% of defendants were found guilty. When she left four years later, it was down to 10%.

  • Went into private practice in 1917 and started teaching to supplement her income

  • In mid 1920s met singer/actress Blossom Churan (daughter of a lawyer in her office) and began long-term relationship


One of the photos of Blossom Churan that was framed and displayed in Hart's office.

  • Fought for women’s political power post-suffrage. Even though women had gained the right to vote, they were still excluded from seats of power

  • Unsuccessfully ran for judge of Municipal Court in the 1930s and 1940s.

  • During this time, Hart was increasingly involved in legal and social activism, working with reform groups and women’s groups. She created a professional network for women lawyers and made her libraries and study room available to women law students

  • Joined Citizen’s Committee on the Juvenile Court (CCJC) 1938, improved it through development of a psychiatric unit and securing medical care for children who came before the court. Created watchdog program over reform schools and worked on welfare policies

  • Founding member and first national secretary of National Lawyers Guild (NLG) which was created in response to growing tide of racism in the U.S. and fascism in Europe. The NLG promoted a “progressive and racially integrated alternative to the American Bar Association”

  • In 1943, Blossom Churan began a relationship with physician Bertha Isaacs. Isaacs joined Hart and Churan in their household and the 3 maintained this arrangement until Churan’s death in the late 60s

  • Hart was a rather private person. She kept her private life separte from her public life and her life with her wider family. While a public voice for the rights for and defense of gay men and lesbians, Hart maintian a certain amount of discretion, common for the time, about her own sexuality and household arrangements. Both Churan and Isaacs accompanied her to various social events

  • In 1943, co-founded George and Ann Portes Cancer Prevention Center which opened an all-volunteer run clinic for early cancer detection in women. Hart contributed her services here for the next 32 yrs

  • Appointed instructor of jurisprudence at John Marshall Law School in 1946 and continued teaching criminal law there until 1971

  • By 1940s, Hart began to focus on civil rights. She became part of the executive board of the Civil Rights Congress of Illinois in 1948 and acted as trustee of the Bail Fund

  • Became a member of the Progressive Party and unsuccessfully ran for Alderman twice (1947 and 1951). Studs Terkel served as her campaign manager.

  • Defended immigrants and radicals accused of subversive activities through the passage of the McCarren Act (1950). Defended immigrants in HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings in Chicago

  • Appealed the case of U.S. v. Witkovich to the Supreme Court in 1957 and won. Witkovich was facing deportation on suspicion of his affiliation with the Communist Party. She is the first known lesbian to argue in front of the Supreme Court.


Hart's case card index

  • Was associated, primarily as legal advisor, with the work of the two Chicago Councils of the Mattachine Society that existed in 1954-1957 and 1960-1961.

  • Wrote Your Legal Right during the period of the first Chicago Council of the Mattachine Society (1954-1957). This is the first know pamphlet compiled regarding legal rights for homosexuals. View the full pamphlet.

  • Helped organize the Mattachine Midwest in 1965 and remained as its counsel until her death. Mattachine Midwest work on fighting discrimination, harassment, job loss, and arrest of homosexuals. They fought the Chicago Police Department over entrapment and bar raids.

Hart with Mattachine Midwest leaders in 1969.

  • Defended many gay men who were entrapped as well as gay men and lesbian in bar raids and harassment.

  • Met author and poet Valerie Taylor in 1963 through their work with Mattachine Midwest. Taylor called Hart the “love of [her] life” and remained close to Hart until her death. Hart was still living with Churan and Isaacs at the time, so Taylor moved in around the corner.


Valerie Taylor

  • Hart died of complications from pancreatic cancer in March of 1975 at the age of 84

  • Hart’s family did not recognize the relationship she had with Valerie Taylor, so during the funeral service she was not recognized as the “widow” of the deceased. However, members of Mattachine Midwes who attended the service stood as Taylor entered the room which, according to the tradition of the service, would have been the proper action for showing respect for the widow of the deceased.

  • Hart was dubbed the “Guardian Angel of Chicago’s gay community”. She devoted countless pro bono hours of legal work to the causes she believed in and to her poor and needy clients

  • In 1992, was posthumously induced into the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame

  • In 2002, received a Chicago Tribute Marker of Distinction which is installed at was 2821 N. Pine Grove Ave, where she lived for 25 years.