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A Brief History of Women at CLS: Part 2

World War II at the Law School

Male-to-female ratios improved during the 1940s, chiefly as a consequence of depleted enrollments of men who went off to serve in World War II. Women were admitted in greater numbers to fill those empty seats. The first black women students also entered Columbia Law at this time, most notably Elreta Alexander '45, Constance Baker Motley '46, and Carmel Carrington Marr '48. In order to speed time to graduation, the faculty voted to run three full sessions per year. During the war and for several years afterward, the Law School held graduation ceremonies in October, February, and June, which enabled returning veterans to make up for lost time. Although a majority of those veterans were men, Sara S. Portnoy '49 was careful to point out that there were six women veterans in her class.

"I've remained good friends with many women from my class and contemporary classes," she says. "Overall, the men students treated us beautifully; they had no problem accepting us as colleagues. Each woman seemed to know a different group among the men. When we women got together, there was a lot of information sharing!" 

As far as women becoming members of the faculty was concerned, however, the Law School was batting .000 with no prospects in the dugout. Entertaining the idea of women as faculty colleagues could not have been easy for many professors, who had a difficult enough time accepting women students. Mary Price Franco '49 recalls that "women did not sit together in class because we were seated alphabetically. In asking students to recite, Prof. [Edwin Wilhite] Patterson was apt to call students ‘Mr.' because he couldn't get used to the idea of women in class." 

The Law School News records several examples of teacher/student dialogue that today would be questioned. Posing a hypothetical during torts class, one professor described "a lady who ran into a wealthy-looking man in a bar and thought he was a soft touch; at just about the same time, he had decided the same thing about her."

In another class, the notorious Development of Legal Institutions, taught by Professor Julius Goebel '23, this scene, according to The Law School News, took place on "Ladies' Day," when women especially were called upon in class:

The first damsel arose and faced the class. The good professor retired to the rear of the class and posed his first question....as abstract as usual. Our heroine was stumped. Hushed whispers were heard as attempts at aid were begun. From the back of the room came, in gravel-like tones: "I hear some whispering. If necessary, I'll clear out that front row and put all married men there...so there'll be no helping hands.

It was also not unusual for a professor to address his entire class as "gentlemen."

Encouragement from Professors

Brushing aside those sexist remarks, women still recall encouragement and advice offered by a number of faculty members. They considered Professor Jerome Michael '12 not only a superb teacher of evidence, but a supportive figure who placed no limits on women's professional aspirations. Several women remembered that Assistant to the Dean James Gifford '25 quelled self-doubts about their abilities to handle the demands of the first-year curriculum. Professor Elliot Cheatham stood out for his polite habit of tipping his hat to women students as well as his fair-minded treatment of them in class.

On the extracurricular side, women participated in a range of activities, gladly welcomed by men. Because many men had graduated from single-sex colleges or had served in the armed forces prior to law school, they were now delighted to see women in their midst. In the early 1950s, Genevieve Lam [Fraiman] '52 was elected secretary, then vice president of the Student Council; Rosemary Higgins [Cass] '53 was elected vice president of her class, sweeping past four male rivals. Ms. Higgins also became the first female editor in chief of the Law School News

Perhaps more important during the 1950s was that women students began developing a clear sense of their needs. They organized the Women's Law Society and elected Libby Zucker '51, president; Ruth Sammet [Hartmann] '52, secretary; and Florynce "never was a cupcake" Kennedy '51, treasurer. Plans were made to invite prominent lawyers and judges, both men and women, to luncheons to discuss opportunities open in various fields of law to women graduates and the preparation necessary to enter those fields. Among the first to be invited in 1950 was Ho-ward Rossback, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, who urged women to consider working for his organization, then offering numerous employment opportunities through affiliated groups in large cities across the United States. Other speakers included Muriel Richter, president of the Women's Lawyers Association of New York State, and alumna Harriet Pilpel, who spoke about a lawyer's counseling problems in the field of family law.

Additional encouragement to succeed came from local women lawyers. Harriet Sturtevant [Shapiro] '55 reports that in her first year of law school, the New York Women's Bar Association invited students downtown for tea. To Ms. Shapiro, those women were the real pioneers who had been toughened and tested by years of proving themselves in a profession dominated by men. 

Women also were enjoying a growing awareness of their impact on the Law School. Eve Larson '59, who had served six years' active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard before entering law school, wrote a historical article for the Law School News about the difficulty women had confronted in gaining admission to law schools and being accepted at the bar. She referred to the success of Margaret Spahr and reiterated that women wished to be treated as lawyers, not as women lawyers. Moreover, they did not wish to be identified as "Portias."

Although the editorial board of Columbia Law Review had listed women on the masthead since 1929 (including Margaret Spahr, Harriet Pilpel, Nina Moore Galston '38, and Leanora Schwartz [Gruber] '39), it was not until 1951 that a woman served as editor in chief. She was Janet P. Kane '52, whose intention was "to forge a closer liaison with the faculty and members of the New York bar and, at the same time, continue to build the reputation of Columbia Law Review as a national legal publication of outstanding stature." She was soon followed by a second woman in that position, Harriet Sturtevant, who remembers the basement offices of the Law Review in Kent "where we worked terrifically hard at all hours, but also made our own social group with strong attachments that have kept us all in touch to this day." 

Another positive development in the 1950s was the inclusion of recent women graduates in the Associates-in-Law Program, which gave graduates teaching experience with first-year law students in Legal Method class. Teaching as an associate was a significant step toward launching the careers of law professors. Barbara Aronstein Black '55, an associate in 1955-56, went on to teach American legal history at Yale and Columbia. Another associate, a graduate of Rutgers Law, was asked what it was like to be in a predominantly male school. She replies: "When you've been through three years of law school in the same type of situation, you get used to it. I don't think being female has affected any of my students adversely." 

Judicial clerkships - highly prized as a way to learn the judicial process from behind the bench - were also being made available to women during the 1950s. For example, Frances Bernstein '55 clerked for Judge Irving Kaufman, Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum '53 for Judge Edward Dimock, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg '59 for Judge Edward Palmieri '29. Until the 1970s, however, few women benefited from this experience, despite their outstanding academic records as Kent Scholars or their successes in the Harlan Fiske Stone honor arguments. Because criteria used by judges of the time could include marital status, gender, and freedom to travel - in addition to academic standing and participation on Law Review - one must conclude that qualified women were not fairly evaluated for these appointments. The situation began to improve slowly during the 1960s as more women from each class were chosen. Among them were Diane Schulder '64, who clerked for Judge Dudley B. Bonsal, and Stella Ferguson '65, who clerked for Judge Bryan Simpson.