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A Brief History of Women at CLS: Part 3

Organization and Action in the 1960s

When the late 1960s brought revolutions of every stripe to Columbia, the number of women enrolled in the Law School finally reached a critical mass to tackle problems that had been festering or overlooked. Now women could organize in ways to ensure their voices would be heard. Meeting in the fall of 1969, women students organized and set explicit goals: to improve the position and opportunities for women in the law through increased enrollment and equal opportunities in employment and advancement. Students from NYU Law School were invited to join this meeting to elaborate on their unsuccessful attempt at persuading the American Association of Law Schools to take a strong position against discrimination in hiring and promotion at law firms. The founding of this group was the start of women's activism at the Law School.

The Columbia Law Women's Association got its issues on the table in short order. They wanted to discuss every aspect of women's experience in law school, barriers to employment, law school admissions policies, and recruitment of women faculty members. In October 1971, the group issued a statement requesting an end to stereotyped portrayals and insisted there be "no more backside jokes, dumb housewife hypotheticals, and professorial paternalism." If women were objecting to this classroom behavior, then attitudes toward women had not changed significantly since the era of Ladies' Day. With the arrival of Dean Michael Sovern '55 in 1970, they found a man who listened to their agenda and was willing to act on it. 

Hiring Ruth Bader Ginsburg from Rutgers Law School was Dean Sovern's first step, followed almost immediately by promoting Harriet Rabb '66 to assistant dean for urban affairs. Two years later, Vivian O. Berger '73 joined the faculty, the first time a law faculty spouse had been hired. In a later interview, Professor Berger noted that she was "not conscious of the gender" of her teachers but now realized that "it might have been good to have role models." Now Nash Professor Emerita of Law, Prof. Berger remembered that in her early days of teaching "critical comments were at times phrased in sexist terms, like commenting on what I wore. I felt supported by the female students, but there weren't that many."

Dean Sovern enabled prominent feminist thinkers to speak at the School, including alumna and Judge Nanette Dembitz and Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique. In 1975, the Law School hosted the second annual Conference of Metropolitan Law Women, organized by nine area law schools whose total enrollment of women was more than 1,200. Participants heard keynote speaker Bella Abzug '44 rip into discriminatory practices against women applying for credit or welfare benefits. Dean Sovern also managed to enlarge the women's restroom on the ground floor after two women charged into the men's room rather than endure a long wait for the ladies'. (The invaders said they were making a biological, not a political, statement.)

Women in Double-digits

The Bulletin of the School of Law for 1972-73 reported:

Increasing numbers of women are interested in pursuing a legal education. At this time about one-fifth of the entering class are women.

Twenty percent! "When we came in, there was a sense that we were part of a great change as well as the cause of that change. Enrollment of women really started to zoom in the seventies," says Amy Ignatin Sanders '76. Momentum gathered during the 1960s sustained the activities of women students during the next decade and extended their influence. Now Professor George Cooper and Dean Rabb were directing a clinical seminar in fair employment law, and Professor Ginsburg was teaching a clinical seminar on sex discrimination and the law in connection with the Women's Rights Project of the ACLU. One of Dean Rabb's leading cases, highly publicized at the time, was the successful settlement of a sex discrimination suit against New York Telephone. Courses in family law, welfare law, and gender-based discrimination and the law exposed students to the inequitable treatment of men and women at home, at work, and in government programs. The growing number of women students, however, truly speaks of success: Women formed eight percent of the class of 1970, but 32 percent of the class of 1980.

Yet the number of women also caused diverging views on the purpose of the Women's Association. Some members wanted to lobby for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment while others preferred the group to function as a discussion group on such matters as balancing the demands of work and family. The identity crisis was not helped by the departure of Prof. Ginsburg to the federal bench or the decision of Professor Ellen Oran '77, on the faculty since 1978, to enter private practice. With Prof. Vivian Berger on leave, the School reverted to the atmosphere of a men's club, and the women students were not pleased. As an editorial in the Law School News pointed out, the Law School had 50 years of women graduates to its credit and "ought to make a concerted effort to seek those women who are interested in teaching law."

Despite conflicting visions, women united in the spring of 1980 to host the first Myra Bradwell Day, named in honor of the Illinois lawyer who, in 1870, was denied admission to the state bar because she was a woman - and a married one, to boot. Two timely panels, one on the Roles of Women in the Law and the second on Women in Power, brought together Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Deborah Fins '78 of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Susan Goldberg of Coudert Brothers, Professor Sylvia Law of NYU Law School, and Kathleen Peratis of Clark, Wulf, Levine & Peratis. Harriet Pilpel, the successful author/ practitioner and enduring inspiration to Columbia women, was the keynote speaker, followed by New York City Council President Carol Bellamy, former State Senator Karen Burstein, Carolyn Reed of the Urban League, and Dean Rabb. Students enjoyed hearing stories of women who had made waves when the judge called them "dear" or "sweetheart" and who continued to upset traditional stereotypes.

The enthusiastic response from alumnae, students, and faculty ensured that the Myra Bradwell Day would become an annual celebration right to the present year, when Penelope Andrews '84 LL.M, a professor of law at the City University of New York, spoke on new possibilities for female lawyers created by the expanding international legal framework. Year after year, Myra Bradwell Day continues to be a magnet for dynamic speakers and a forum for topics of interest to students. Starting with a two-mile Run for Equality in Riverside Park, the day's events generally include two panels, a keynote address, and a reception at which the Distinguished Alumna Award is presented.

On the faculty, deliberate progress was made toward increasing the number of women in classrooms and clinics and as visiting professors. Suhba Narasimhan '80 joined the faculty a year after graduating from the Law School. Soon afterward came Penda Hair, Paula Powers, Susan Rose-Ackerman, Deborah M. Greenberg '57, Julia Spring, and Jane Spinak. Assuming a more egalitarian format, in 1984 the Directory (known then as the "facebook") printed faculty photographs in alphabetical order, a shift from the decades-old practice of arranging photographs by date of appointment. Although this may seem a minor adjustment, it meant that women were no longer clustered at the end of the faculty section. Barbara Black and Lori Fisler Damrosch, both appointed in 1984, appear in the opening pages. The medium held a clear message. 

Gaining strength in numbers, the Columbia Law Women's Association held a conference at which established alumnae shared their career breakthroughs and roadblocks with women students. Students heard strategies and ad-hoc solutions that worked for women who had been practicing law (and in several instances, raising a family) for many years. Already in 1983, women were conscious of the infamous glass ceiling holding them back from top management or plum assignments. As Paula Glasman '71 observes: "Initial entry levels are not the problem. Young women may encounter problems in advancing to higher level jobs." The practical advice tendered at this conference was probably more valuable to women students than some days in class.

Publication of the Report of the New York Task Force on Women in the Courts in 1986 directed attention to problems women faced as litigators. After striving to attain first a law degree, then professional acceptance as attorneys, women had to deflect improper forms of address ("young lady," "honey") from judges or opposing counsel that undermined their credibility as advocates in the courtroom. Imagine the indignation of a Columbia Law woman who had taken the course in gender-based discrimination, participated in the fair employment clinic, or read the University's statement of non-discriminatory policies! Lynn Hecht Schafran '74, one of the advisers to the task force, acknowledges that there's been "tremendous improvement in courtroom behavior after the publication of reports like this, along with much-needed revisions in judicial codes of conduct. Yet across the country today, I still hear women speak of rude comments and sexist behavior in depositions, discovery, negotiations, and meetings outside the courtroom. Those unfair tactics have found new venues."