Ella Mae Backus
Life Dates: b. April 22, 1863, d. July 28, 1938
Full Name: Ella Mae Backus
Birthplace: Royal Oak Township, MI
Tags: Law, Women’s Clubs
Attorney Ella Mae Backus made her mark on West Michigan during her 35-year career in the Grand Rapids office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan. In 1923, she was appointed the first female Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Western District, one of only six women in the United States who held that position. In 1928, she became the first female member of the Grand Rapids Bar Association. Backus blazed the trail for generations of women who followed her into the legal profession and established an enduring legacy as “an inspiration to women aspiring to the legal profession and to public service.”
Backus grew up on a farm in central Michigan. After graduating from high school, she broke away from the expected path for women of her generation and began to work as a stenographer in a small law office in Traverse City. This choice set her on the path to becoming an attorney and, in 1895 she was admitted to the bar in Traverse City – most likely the first woman to achieve this distinction.
Even at the early stages of her career, Backus was known throughout the state. As a result of her prominence, she was appointed clerk of the office of the U.S. Attorney in Grand Rapids in 1903. Backus quickly became indispensable to the office, taking full charge of the administration of the office and shouldering an increasing share of the legal work.
Backus’ tenure in the U.S. Attorney’s office was especially remarkable, because she worked for six different U.S. Attorneys. She played an important role in federal law enforcement in Western Michigan during turbulent times that included World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and, at the end of her career, the New Deal. Both Democrats and Republicans chose to retain Backus because of her immense knowledge of federal law and procedure. She was appreciated not just for her legal knowledge, but also for her strength of character and dedication to her work. After her death, colleagues remarked that, “ … she served her country with as much loyalty, fidelity, and unselfish devotion as any patriot whoever marched in battle in defense of his country’s flag.”
To put Backus’ achievements in perspective, the first female Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Janet Kinnane, was appointed more than 20 years after Backus was appointed. Backus achieved her success as a pioneer in the field of law and government service without the benefit of wealth or political connections. Newspaper accounts, records of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, court records, and records of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan show that she was highly regarded by attorneys and judges alike. The length of her career is remarkable in and of itself and her persistence in the office magnified the impact she had on the administration of justice in the Western District of Michigan. Backus continued in service to the government despite serious health problems and she worked right up until her death at the age of 75. Through her long career, Backus demonstrated that women could succeed in the demanding field of law and, as a result, she opened the door for future generations of female attorneys.
Ellen Arlinsky and Marg Ed Conn Kwapil, A Grand Profession, A Grand Tradition: A History of the Grand Rapids Bar (Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids Bar Association, 1995)
“History of the Western District of Michigan,” Office of the United States Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdmi/about/history.
Stevens, Ruth (Fall 2016). “Assistant US Attorney Ella Mae Backus: “A most important Figure in the legal profession in the Western District of Michigan””. Michigan Historical Review. 7 (2): 1–30. doi:10.5342/michhistrevi.42.2.0001