A Brief History of Women at CLS: Part 4

Dean Barbara Aronstein Black

Front-page headlines announced Barbara Aronstein Black's appointment as the School's 11th (but first female) dean in 1986. The New York Times was at a loss to find a precedent, although as Dean Black kindly corrected them, Soia Mentschikoff had been dean of the University of Miami Law School since 1974. (Dean Mentschikoff, in turn, was followed by another Columbia Law graduate, Mary Doyle '68.) But a female dean in an Ivy League school was as rare as a left-handed third baseman. 

Dean Black quickly established herself as an adept and creative administrator, establishing the Foundation Curriculum for first-year students and initiating regular "Dean's Forums," at which students had an opportunity to voice concerns and opinions. Dean Black also introduced two major enhancements of the curriculum especially appreciated by women students. First, Martha Albertson Fineman joined the faculty in 1991, bringing with her the Feminist and Legal Theory Conference, which she had founded and which encouraged cross-disciplinary research on legal issues of concern to women. This annual workshop brought together feminist scholars from the United States and abroad to discuss the condition of women in the world in respect to health, the economy, legal status, and family stability. Within the curriculum, Prof. Fineman taught courses on family law and children and the law. Second, also in 1991, the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law was established, a student edited journal "created to address the interplay between gender and law and its effects at the personal, community, national, and international levels." Since its inception 11 years ago, the journal has published articles on feminist jurisprudence, sex discrimination, the legal construction of gender, and women's rights.

The number of women students entering in the fall of 1987 shot up to 45 percent, the highest in the School's history at that point. In addition, Dean Black requested that Alumni - nominative plural masculine, if you remember your Latin - be dropped from Columbia Law School Alumni Association, making it simply the Columbia Law School Association, a definite step toward equality. For these major improvements (and for those anticipated), the Columbia Law Women's Association presented the second Distinguished Alumna Award to Dean Black on Myra Bradwell Day in 1986. 

A Female Majority

The impact of women's rise in the legal profession is a force to be reckoned with. No longer confined to the margins, women have moved to the influential center, where they assume positions of increasing responsibility. Building on the accomplishments of prior generations, women practice law in all areas, run courtrooms at every level, manage businesses and legal departments, teach in law schools throughout the world, enter government service in elected and appointed positions, direct legal services for nonprofit institutions and agencies, and successfully find ways to challenge and change their profession. In 1994, for example, the ABA elected its first woman president as well as the first woman chair of the House of Delegates.

At this point, women constitute 52 percent of the class of 2003 and 55 percent of the class of 2004. Today's students enjoy an additional advantage in the Columbia Law Women's Association, continuously active since its formation in 1969, which hosts a series of career panel lunches enabling students to consider a variety of options when looking for jobs. As students, women are accepted as leaders and as equals. Margaret Taylor '02, editor in chief of volume 102 of the Columbia Law Review and the seventh woman in that position, says she observed "absolutely no difficulty on the administrative board with three-quarters of the leadership positions held by women." In the classroom, Shoshana Eisenberg '03, a teaching fellow, has felt no difficulty in being accepted by the section she leads. 

On the faculty there are 20 women, including feminist scholars Carol Sanger, Patricia Williams, Katherine Franke, and Susan Sturm. Women's rights are represented in the curriculum by courses and seminars on domestic violence and the law, legal regulation of motherhood, sexual harassment in employment, and gender law and equality. Teaching and research interests of women on the faculty extend over all areas of the law, including black feminist legal theory (Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw), international law (Lori Damrosch), civil rights and gender identity law (Katherine Franke), intellectual property (Jane C. Ginsburg), negotiation and mediation (Carol B. Liebman), criminal law (Debra Livingston), constitutional law (Gillian Metzger '95), legal history (Barbara Black and Ariela Dubler), corporate law (Katharina Pistor), nonprofit organizations (Barbara A. Schatz), juvenile justice (Jane Spinak), and law and technology (Mary Marsh Zulack). 

Gaining in momentum as well as in numbers, alumnae have initiated plans and projects to strengthen ties among themselves and with Columbia Law students and the School. In 1994, Columbia alumnae recognized significant achievements of earlier graduates when the Women's City Club of New York presented a program for Women's History Month titled "Success Stories: Women Graduates of Columbia Law School," with panelists Edith Spivack, Ida Klaus, Hon. Priscilla Hall '73, Hon. Kristin Booth Glen '66, Lynn Hecht Schafran '74, Susan B. Lindenauer '64, and Prof. Vivian Berger. Inspired by the success of this panel, Laraine S. Rothenberg '71 helped found the Alumnae of Columbia Law School with a mission "to support and enhance the professional development of the women of Columbia Law School." Ms. Rothenberg's idea drew on the talents of many alumnae and sparked renewed involvement in many quarters. An energetic and resourceful association, this group has organized events, meetings, and roundtables to address issues of current interest: career development and advancement, concerns of women of color, flexible work arrangements, and mentoring, to name a few. 

Enthusiasm generated by the Alumnae of Columbia Law School has led to numerous projects with ambitious goals. Now well under way is the Women's Oral History Project, which has captured the experiences of law students from the 1930s and 1940s with vivid recollections of their law classes in Kent Hall, their attempts to find employment and the progress of their careers. Accompanying the oral history project have been lunches to honor alumnae from the first decades of co-education at the Law School. Finally, the Committee for the Celebration of 75 Years of Women at Columbia Law School, chaired by Susan Lindenauer, is presenting the culmination of four years of intensive planning with two days of panel discussions and addresses on October 18-19. Participants will be able to attend panels on a choice of subjects, including the "Media & IP Law," "Women Lawyers around the World," "Women on the Bench," "Serving the Public Interest in a Legal Career," and "Career Path as In-House Counsel." The event will begin with a lecture by the Hon. Mary Robinson, United Nations high commissioner of human rights, as part of the Barbara Aronstein Black lecture series. The celebration will finish with a gala dinner featuring remarks by the Hon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose distinguished career exemplifies that versatility characteristic of many Columbia Law alumnae.

Edith Fisch, the first woman to earn three law degrees from Columbia (LL.B.'48, LL.M.'49, and J.S.D.'50), predicted the success of Columbia's alumnae in a statistical profile she compiled for the Women Lawyers Journal in 1951. After reviewing the numbers (for example, 11 percent of women graduates had served on Law Review, 13 percent were Kent Scholars, 25 percent were partners, members, or associates of law firms) she concludes:

Recognizing that there are spheres within which the Columbia alumnae have not played as important or prominent a part as their male counterparts, the overall picture portrayed by these statistics is one of encouragement. Not only do these figures expose as untrue the popularly held belief that women graduates fail actively to practice law, but on the contrary establish that women are an integral and valuable component of the legal profession.

She was right, and she knew it more than a half century ago.