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A Brief History of Women at CLS: Part 1

Part 1:

by Whitney S. Bagnall, Head of Special Collections, Diamond Law Library

The movement to get women accepted into Columbia Law School began as early as 1909.  One objection was that male students, fearing their education would be compromised, would leave Columbia for Harvard (which didn't admit women until 1950).  At one point, in 1915, a compromise was suggested: create a separate law school for women.  It wasn't until 1927 that obstacles were removed, and the first women -- three of them -- crossed the threshold of Kent Hall.  Since then, the Law School has graduated thousands of women who have gone on to become successful lawyers, judges, college presidents, and entrepreneurs.  The Law School library's head of special collections, Whitney Bagnall, reports on the 75 years that women have been admitted as students.

When the Law School alumni held their annual meeting in March 1927, they had little notion of the changes afoot sparked by the recent faculty resolution to admit women. The alumni met at the Lawyers' Club, which housed a library and meeting rooms, but maintained separate dining facilities for wives and daughters. Dean Young B. Smith '12, then in the first year of his deanship, quite naturally attended these meetings. His annual reports make it clear he was barely cognizant of the presence of women students in the School. So intent was he on preparing men for the bar that his reports for the years 1927-37, in fact, make no mention that women were even applying, being interviewed, enrolling, and graduating. A careful reading of the list of undergraduate colleges sending students to Columbia Law School during those years, however, reveals that Vassar, Wellesley, Hunter, Smith, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Sweet Briar, Goucher, Skidmore, and Connecticut College had all prepared women qualified to enter this law school.

Women weren't enrolling in great numbers, to be sure, nor did all who enrolled complete the three-year course of study. (Not all men stayed for the full time, either.) If Dean Smith did not publicize the admission of women to that gathering of alumni, it is also safe to say that many of the women who entered Columbia Law over the next decades had little idea what reception they would be given upon crossing the Kent Hall threshold, home to the Ivy League school that had fostered two U.S. presidents, two U.S. Supreme Court justices, and a phalanx of judges, district attorneys, elected officials, and men in public service. Nevertheless, women became a continuous presence whose participation in legal education changed their lives and the culture of the Law School.

Women had been applying to study law as early as 1909, without success, and by the early 1920s, the Law School was the only Columbia graduate school that did not admit women. Credit for opening the doors of Kent Hall to females goes to Virginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College from 1911-47 and adviser of Women's Graduate Studies. Dean Gildersleeve's credentials were ideal for beginning discussions with Dean Harlan Fiske Stone 1898. Her Columbia dissertation had dealt with government regulation of Elizabethan drama, and she was the daughter of a New York Supreme Court judge who had attended the Law School during the years of Theodore Dwight, the School's founder and first dean (or, as deans were called in those days, warden). Dean Gildersleeve first broached the possibility of women entering the Law School to Dean Stone in November 1915. Despite her entreaties, which were supported by University President Nicholas Murray Butler and the National League of Women Voters, Dean Stone and his faculty proved intractable on the matter. The reason: Male applicants would decide that Harvard Law, still a single-sex school, was a preferable institution. Wording of the faculty's resolution in 1924 was discouraging: "In the judgment of a majority of the Faculty of Law, it is inexpedient and contrary to the best interests of the Law School that women should be admitted to its classes."

Dean Gildersleeve persisted. Having been instrumental in convincing the dean of the College of Physicians and Surgeons to accept women students in 1917, she was not about to retreat from her siege of Kent Hall. Her stage was the enlarging arena of women's political and economic rights, strengthened by ratification of the 19th Amendment for women's suffrage in 1920. Furthermore, since 1918, the ABA had admitted women to membership, and both Yale and Fordham Law Schools had accepted women as students.

After Dean Stone departed to become U.S. attorney general in 1924, Huger W. Jervey '13 became dean. With a new man at the helm and with the support of Professor Underhill Moore '02, who introduced a resolution recommending the admission of women at a faculty meeting on December 10, 1926, Dean Gildersleeve had achieved her goal. 

The resolution read: "Students and graduates of Barnard College shall be admitted to the Law School subject, however, to such restrictions as shall from time to time be fixed by the committee of rules of the faculty of law after consultation with the Dean of Barnard College." Not exactly a warm embrace, but Professor Karl Llewellyn insisted on doing the right thing with a second resolution affirming that women would be considered on the same basis, "with all the terms and conditions applicable," as male candidates for admission. Women were entering as students of the law, not as special students, and they expected a level playing field. Whether they found one during those early years remains to be seen.

The First Women Enter Kent Hall as Students

The fall of 1927 saw women from Barnard, Vassar, and Smith Colleges enrolled as Columbia Law students. Who were these pioneers, and how did they fare? Their names may have slipped from memory, but their achievements deserve recounting.

Margaret Spahr '29 was the very first. A graduate of Smith and a teacher of history and government, she interrupted her career to write a dissertation at Columbia, directed by Howard McBain of the graduate faculties and Thomas Reed Powell of the law faculty. At the Law School, she was designated a Kent Scholar, and she was the first woman on the board of the Columbia Law Review

Upon graduation from Columbia, she was appointed to the faculty of Hunter College, where she taught political science and wrote books, articles, and reviews. In 1959 she retired to Northampton, Mass., where she died in 1973. It is likely that Prof. Spahr's long association with Hunter College encouraged many students to attend Columbia Law. During the 1930s, more than a dozen Hunter women entered the Law School.

One student from Barnard, Helen Hessin Robinson '30, and one from Vassar, Elizabeth Rhodes Butler, also entered in 1927. President of her class at Barnard, Ms. Robinson went on to practice law at the New York firm of Lord, Day & Lord. Ms. Butler, on the other hand, did not complete her law school education, but decided to return to social work, her calling before law school, and became director of social work at the Graham School in Hastings-on-Hudson. Leaving law school was not an unusual decision for the time. Abrupt changes in family life, relocations, illness, or financial strains caused both men and women to withdraw from their studies. In that era, September enrollments were always larger than the number of June graduates three years later.

Columbia's graduate legal education also benefited from the change in enrollment policy. In 1930, Viola B. Kneeland '30, a Wellesley graduate, became the first woman to earn an LL.M. degree. She had received her law degree from Boston University and continued to practice law at a Boston firm throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Another LL.M. student, Mary Coate McNeeley '40, was the first woman to have a signed article, "Illegality as a Factor in Liability Insurance," published in the Columbia Law Review in 1941.

Studious, determined, but above all, versatile: Those are the words to describe the first women who studied law at Columbia. During the 1930s, enrollment of women reached a high of 10 percent in 1935, but that was exceptional. The number of women students
registered each fall averaged about 12 (five percent), versus 220 men. As students, the women encountered male professors and saw women employed only in the secretariat and the law library. The one female role model they may have heard speak was Judge Justine Wise Polier, recently appointed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to the Domestic Relations Court, who gave a special lecture at the Law School on the work of the court. Apart from the occasional special lecture, classes were scheduled six days a week, with the Saturday morning classes running until noon. In the sole mention of women in his annual report for 1939, Dean Smith advised that an urgent need for Kent Hall was to fix up a restroom for women students and employees. He wasn't joking. The women's room was in the cellar, and students regarded it as dank and unpleasant.

Those determined women who completed their legal education in the 1930s embarked on varied careers with minimal help from the Law School. There was no Placement Office at the time, and Dean Smith did not consider it the School's responsibility to help students find employment. For both men and women, the routine was to knock on law firm doors and hope for an interview. Some students carried a letter of introduction from a lawyer or law professor, but such a letter opened no doors for women. As Nancy Fraenkel Wechsler '40, recalls: "At one firm, the receptionist told me they'd hired female stenographers only two years ago, and they were not about to hire women lawyers. At another firm, one of the partners who knew my father emerged from his office to tell me, very politely but in words leaving no doubt, that women had no place in this firm."

Sometimes a family friend or relative might prove the right connection. In that case, women were often assigned to work in trusts and estates, "where all the clients were dead and no one would see you," as Edith I. Spivack '32, memorably describes it.

In spite of these discouraging words, some early graduates still found employment in a career that gave satisfaction: Florence L. Brush '31 practiced law at Milbank, Tweed; Margery Mallon '31 practiced in Philadelphia and later became a law librarian; Ida Klaus's '31 long career was with the New York City Board of Education in the Office of Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining; Edith Newman Cook '32 worked as an assistant solicitor for the U.S. Department of Labor; Sybil Phillips '32 maintained a private practice, then moved to the Law Section of the U.S. Customs Court; Evelyn E. West '32 was an attorney for the U.S. Department of the Treasury; Mayte Boylan '33 spent three years in Tokyo in the general headquarters of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers before returning to work in the Department of Justice; Hortense W. Gabel '35, Nanette Brandeis Dembitz '37, and Florence Riley '35 became judges; Ruth Foster Sturm '35 wrote A Manual of Customs Law; Harriet Pilpel '36 and Theodora Zavin '43 jointly wrote Your Marriage and the Law; and Soia Mentschikoff '37, after teaching at both Harvard and Chicago, was appointed dean of the University of Miami Law School. Versatile hardly begins to describe these women.