Based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, a social worker reforms prisons and has a child out of wedlock by a judge convicted of bribery.
Ann Vickers (Irene Dunne) is living and working in a settlement house when she meets and falls in love with Captain Resnick (Bruce Cabot); but before going to France he shows up with another woman, though he says he will marry Ann. Ann tells her friend Malvina (Edna May Oliver) this has completely freed her of him so that she can devote herself to her work. Ann realizes that passion for another can be a projection of one's own desires. After a rest at Malvina's Judge Barney Dolphin gets Ann a job in a prison. She tells Lindsay (Conrad Nagel) she likes him but rejects his offer. The prison warden turns the sociologist Ann over to the tough Captain Waldo. The women inmates rebel and riot; one is hanged, and another is whipped. Ann complains and refuses to resign until she is framed and blackmailed.
Ann writes a successful book on life in prison. She is given a top position so that she can reform a prison. She helps Kitty, an inmate she knew before. At Malvina's party Ann meets Barney Dolphin (Walter Huston). They like each other, and he takes her home. He tells her he is being investigated for having underworld friends and getting tips on the stock market. Barney greatly admires Ann; his wife lives in Europe but won't give him a divorce. He visits Ann's office and kisses her. She cooks dinner for him and tells him she is pregnant. Ann gives birth to a son they call Matthew. Barney is indicted for taking a bribe. He asks his wife if she wants him to give the money back from the stock tips, and she says no. Barney is found guilty and is sentenced to six years hard labor. The prison board reprimands Ann for her personal life, and she resigns. Ann visits Lindsay, who tells her he is divorced. She asks his help in getting a pardon for Barney; but he refuses because of "conscience." She criticizes his hypocrisy. Ann visits Barney in prison; she is writing on prison reform, and he is getting a divorce. After three years Barney is pardoned and returns to Ann. She says he got her out of the prison of her ambition. Little Matthew asks who he is, but they are happy.
This story explores the feminist issues of balancing a career and family, how women can reform society so that it is more humane, and attitudes of men toward a strong woman. Ann lives according to her heart, applying her ideals in practical ways without being concerned about conventional morality or being consistent. Her facing difficult circumstances with courage and compassion may be an inspiration to the broad-minded.