Celebrating Women’s History Month

Explore a selection of original articles and videos from the past year featuring exceptional women from the Columbia Law community.

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“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. . . . It shouldn't be that women are the exception.” —Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 (1933–2020) 

For Women’s History Month, Columbia Law offers a selection of stories and videos about alumnae, students, and faculty published in the past year—including tributes to trailblazers like Justice Ginsburg and Judge Elreta Alexander ’45, the first Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law; profiles of faculty and alumnae who are leading the future of law; and videos featuring members of the Class of 2020. Explore below.

 

New York City Bar president Sheila Boston in a striped blazer and chunky necklace

Sheila Boston ’93 Leads City Bar Association Into a Brave New World

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Christen E. Hammock ’20

Christen E. Hammock ’20 Wins the First Virtual Harlan Fiske Stone Moot Court Final

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Judge Debra A. Livingston in black robe

Professor Debra Livingston Invested as Chief Judge for the 2nd Circuit

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Portrait of Sarah Seo

Sarah A. Seo ’07 Joins Law Faculty

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Side-by-side image of Judith Browne Dianis ’92 and Kristen Clarke ’00

Judith Browne Dianis ’92 and Kristen Clarke ’00 Take Over the Columbia Law Instagram

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Columbia Law Review Editor in Chief Oluwatumise Asebiomo in blue dress

Meet ‘Columbia Law Review’ Editor in Chief Oluwatumise Asebiomo ’21

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Portrait photo of Talia Gillis

Talia Gillis: Keeping Track of Our ‘Mental Accounting’

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Side-by-side image of Kimberly Mutcherson ’97 and Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and Kimberly Mutcherson ’97 Win Lifetime Achievement Awards From AALS

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Susanna Booth portrait

Susanna Booth ’21 Receives Prestigious Skadden Fellowship

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Side-by-side photo of Professors Alex Carter ’03 and Kathryn Judge

Professors Alexandra Carter ’03 and Kathryn Judge: Women in the Workforce During a Pandemic—Advancing Your Career by Asking for More

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Columbia Law Professor Gillian Metzger in glasses and a blazer on the Columbia University campus

Columbia University Honors Professor Gillian Metzger ’96 With Faculty Mentoring Award

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Columbia Law professor Lina Khan in blue jacket and white camisole

Antitrust Scholar Lina Khan Joins Faculty

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Black and white headshot of Bella Abzug smiling

“A warrior for every social justice movement of her day.”

Early Life

Bronx Beginnings

Bella Savitsky Abzug was born in the Bronx on July 24, 1920, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. She was a civil rights activist throughout her life.

Early Life

Finding Her Voice

Abzug liked to say she was “born yelling.” As a young woman, she delivered impassioned speeches in the New York City subway for causes she championed. She continued making an impact with her words throughout her career. Watch her in action.

Columbia and Beyond

Life On and Off Campus

At Columbia Law, Abzug served as editor of the Columbia Law Review. During World War II, she took a sabbatical to work at a shipyard. She also married Martin Abzug in 1944 (they remained married until his death in 1986). Listen to her speaking at Columbia.

Columbia and Beyond

Start in Civil Rights

After graduating from Columbia Law, Abzug worked as a civil rights lawyer, including in the highly publicized case of Willie McGee, a Black man from Mississippi charged with raping a white woman.

Activism in the 1960s

Fighting for Women’s Rights

In the 1960s, Abzug founded Women Strike for Peace, a group that lobbied for a ban on nuclear testing, and marched to protest the Vietnam War.

Political Career

Redefining “A Woman’s Place”

In 1970, at the age of 50, Abzug ran for and won a seat in Congress under the slogan, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.”

Political Career

Congresswoman Abzug

Abzug authored or co-authored several historic bills, including:

Title IX.

The Freedom of Information Act.

The Equality Act of 1974, the first bill in U.S. history that aimed to protect gay people from discrimination.

Activism from the 1970s and 1990s

Making History

Abzug left Congress in early 1977, but her work continued. She wrote two successful books: Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (1972) and Gender Gap (1984, with co-author Mim Kelber). In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Abzug to lead a new National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, which led to the seminal 1977 National Women’s Conference

Activism from the 1970s to the 1990s

A Global Perspective

In 1991, she co-founded the Women’s Environment & Development Organization, a global women’s advocacy organization that promotes human rights, gender equality, and the integrity of the environment.

Legacy

Opening Doors

Abzug died in 1998, but her legacy lives on. She was the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate from New York and the first woman to run for mayor of New York City. Though she lost both races, she paved the way for other women to run for political office and fight for equal rights. 

Legacy

A Lasting Impact

“When Abzug first took office in 1971, there were only 13 women in the House of Representatives. By the time she left in 1977, she was one of 18 women in that chamber. Today, there are 101. When she ran (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1976, there were no women in the Senate; today there are 26.” (“Feminist Activist Bella Abzug Paved the Way for Women Politicians,” Teen Vogue)

Spotlight February 26, 2021

Image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 teaching in a Columbia Law classroom

“If you are a true professional, you will use your degree to make things a little better for other people.” —Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking at a 2018 event on impact litigation at Columbia Law School, about why students should devote at least part of their careers to public service

1954

Higher Ed Beginnings

Ruth Joan Bader receives her B.A. in government with high honors from Cornell University. As a freshman she meets her future husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, and they marry immediately after her graduation. Daughter Jane is born the following year. (Today, Jane C. Ginsburg is Columbia Law’s Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law.)

1956–1958

Law School Life

Ginsburg and her husband attend Harvard Law School, and she serves as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. 

1959

A Move to Morningside

After completing her first two years of law school at Harvard, Ginsburg transfers to Columbia Law School when her husband takes a job in New York City. She serves as an editor of the Columbia Law Review, earns her L.L.B. in 1959 as a Kent Scholar, and ties for first place in her class.

1959

Clerk Ginsburg

Rejected by all the law firms she applied to, Ginsburg is encouraged by Columbia Law Professor Gerald Gunther to apply for a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the Southern District of New York, which she gets. “For women of my generation, the challenge was to get that first job because most legal employers wanted no lady lawyers,” Ginsburg said in 2018. 

1962

Research and Scholarship

Columbia Law Professor Hans Smit ’58 hires Ginsburg as a researcher and associate director at Columbia’s Project on International Procedure. She travels and lives in Sweden for a period of time. She researches and eventually co-authors a book (1965)  on Swedish civil procedure.

1963

On Faculty

Ginsburg teaches at Rutgers Law School, where she is the second woman to join the law faculty, and earns tenure in 1969. She begins working with the ACLU on discrimination cases including Reed v. Reed, which in 1971 is the first gender-based statute to be struck down on the basis of the equal protection clause. (It struck down a law giving preference to men in administering estates.) 

1972

Academia’s Glass Ceiling

Ginsburg joins the faculty of Columbia Law School and becomes the institution’s first female tenured professor. She introduces the Law School’s first Sex Discrimination Law course and seminar, training future women’s rights advocates. Ginsburg also publicly responds to the university president’s insinuation that she was hired through affirmative action and fights the university when it lays off 25 female maids but not a single male janitor. During this time, she also co-authors the first law school casebook on sex discrimination.

1973–1975

Fighting for Women’s Rights From the Classroom

While teaching at Columbia Law, Ginsburg founds the ACLU Women’s Rights Project to pursue impact litigation on gender discrimination. She argues six cases before the Supreme Court and wins five, including Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), which provided Social Security benefits to widowers as well as widows, and Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), which allowed women serving in the military to claim their husbands as dependents. 

1980–1993

Judicial Service

Ginsburg is appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and resigns her position on the faculty at Columbia. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominates Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court. She is confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 96-3 and becomes the second woman to sit on the court. In a letter to the president recommending Ginsburg, former president of Columbia University Michael I. Sovern wrote, “She would, put simply, make the Court as an institution look good.”

1995

Honored by the Law School

Ginsburg is presented with Columbia Law School’s highest honor, the Medal for Excellence, awarded since 1964 to alumni and faculty who exemplify the qualities of character, intellect, and social and professional responsibility that the Law School seeks to instill in its students.

1996

Challenging Admissions Practices

Ginsburg writes the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, which struck down the Virginia Military Institute’s long-standing male-only admission policy. In a 2012 appearance at Columbia Law School, Ginsburg would call it “a very special case for me. It was a sign of the changing times, it was the U.S. that brought the case. We were no longer the opponent, but the proponent.”

2003

A 10th Anniversary Celebration

Ginsburg visits Columbia several times in the 2000s and 2010s. On September 12, 2003, Columbia Law School celebrates the 10th anniversary of her appointment to the Supreme Court. The event includes a set of panels with world-renowned legal experts as well as a lunchtime address by Justice Stephen G. Breyer. 

2012

Inspiring the Next Generation of Columbia Law Leaders

In 2012, Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law hosts a conference recognizing the 40th anniversary of Ginsburg’s joining the Columbia Law School faculty as well as her contributions to the law of gender-based justice and equality. 

2018

She Opened the Door

In 2018, Ginsburg headlines “She Opened the Door,” the first Columbia University–wide Women’s Conference.

In an interview with CNN anchor Poppy Harlow CC ’05, Ginsburg brings down the house when she answers Harlow’s final question: “Help me finish this sentence: ‘There will be enough female justices on the Supreme Court when there are____’” 

Without missing a beat, Ginsburg replies, “You know the answer. When there are nine, of course.” 

2018

It’s Been an Honor, Your Honor

In September 2018, Ginsburg returns one last time to Columbia Law School for a celebration of her investiture to the Supreme Court. When asked about the most difficult case she had to decide during her years on the Supreme Court, she says that all death penalties cause her “tremendous anxiety,” especially the 11th-hour stays. “If I were a queen, there would be no death penalty,” she says. Her remark makes the news. Dean Gillian Lester later presents Ginsburg with a lace collar commissioned by the Law School and made of tiny interlocking 25s to mark the anniversary.

2020

A Lasting Legacy

Ginsburg dies September 18, 2020, and lies in repose at the Supreme Court. She was 87. The following week, Columbia Law School announces the creation of an endowed professorship in honor of Ginsburg along with two new scholarships in her name. The professorship was established through the generosity of a committed group of Law School alumni and supporters, including University Trustee Emerita Esta E. Stecher ’82, Ginsburg's former clerk Elizabeth Glazer ’86 and her husband Bill Montgomery ’86, former clerk Bill Savitt ’97, and the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Says Stecher, “She inspired me and so many of my classmates in our pursuit of the law as a career. She showed us what was possible.” 

Flo Kennedy speaking at a mic. Credit: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

“I never stop to wonder why I’m not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren’t like me.”

1916

Kansas City Upbringing

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on February 11, 1916, Kennedy grows up with a keen awareness of racism: From the family’s front porch, her parents faced down a mob of white men trying to force them out of the neighborhood.

1932–1943

Opposing Segregation

As a member of the Kansas City NAACP in the early 1930s, Kennedy helps organize a boycott of a Coca-Cola bottler that won’t hire Black workers. In 1942, Kennedy and her sister Grayce refuse to leave a segregated restaurant at a bus station in Missouri. Flo is dragged out by a white crowd, which causes lifelong injury to her back. Later, she sues the bus company and the restaurant and obtains damages. In 1943, Kennedy moves to New York with Grayce and studies pre-law at Columbia University School of General Studies (then the Program of Undergraduate Studies).

1948–1951

Demanding Equal Opportunity at Columbia Law

Kennedy applies to Columbia Law School and is not admitted. In her 1976 autobiography, Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times, she relates that she had discovered she was rejected not because of her race but because she was a woman; she responded that “whatever the reason was, it felt the same to me.” Columbia agrees to reverse its decision, and Kennedy enrolls. In 1950, she joins the Women’s Law Society (now the Columbia Law Women’s Association), which tries to help the handful of female students find jobs at a time when the Columbia Law career services office would not send women on job interviews. After graduating, Kennedy takes a job assisting the bookkeeper at Hartman, Sheridan and Tekulsky, a small Manhattan law firm.

1954–1959

Work and Marriage

In 1954, Kennedy opens her own law office in Manhattan. She is one of 19 Black female lawyers in the state. She marries Charlie Dye, a science fiction writer 10 years her junior. In 1959, when Kennedy’s law partner absconds with the firm’s funds, Dye helps keep the law office running, but due to Dye’s alcoholism, their marriage is not a happy one; he dies shortly thereafter. Unsurprisingly, Kennedy is no fan of marriage: “Why would you lock yourself in the bathroom just because you have to go three times a day?” she says. 

 

1959

Winning Black Musicians Their Due

Kennedy represents singer Billie Holiday, ill with liver disease, on charges stemming from previous drug arrests. She is able to keep Holiday out of police custody while the singer is dying in a New York hospital. Kennedy then goes to court on behalf of Holiday’s estate and the estate of jazz musician Charlie Parker and successfully forces the musicians’ management and record labels to pay royalties owed.

1966

Taking to the Streets

Kennedy shifts from lawyering to activism and begins her long career of public protests. “There began to be a serious question in my mind whether practicing law could ever be an effective means of changing society, or even of simple resistance to oppression,” she writes in her autobiography. To protest the lack of representation and jobs for women and Blacks in media, Kennedy founds the Media Workshop and organizes pickets of ad agencies and news organizations, including The New York Times and CBS. “I’m only interested in working on the pathology of the society as a whole,” she writes. “Because it takes as much time to get one ass out of the wringer as it does to try to stop the wringer.”

1967–1972

Working With NOW

A founding member of NOW, Kennedy is a leading voice in the growing feminist movement and uses her sound-bite speaking style and her political theater skills to draw attention to women’s issues. To protest employment discrimination against women by consumer products company Colgate Palmolive, NOW members picket outside the firm’s headquarters in New York and pour cleaning products into a toilet. “There are very few jobs that actually require a penis or a vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody,” Kennedy says.

1967–1969

Controversial Clients

Kennedy and William Kunstler ’48 defend Black Power movement leader H. Rap Brown (now known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) on a gun charge, and Kennedy raises money and makes media appearances on his behalf. When writer Valerie Solanas shoots Andy Warhol and chooses to represent herself, Kennedy acts as her legal adviser. NOW condemns Solanas, but in court, and more successfully in the media and in the opinion of other womens’ groups, Kennedy casts Solanas’ attack as an act of radical feminist rage. (Solanas is sentenced to time in a psychiatric hospital and prison.) 

 

1968

‘Welcome to the Miss America Cattle Auction’

Kennedy leads hundreds of women in a NOW protest at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, decrying the pageant’s exploitation of women. The event makes the national news and, when the women throw bras and girdles into “freedom trash cans,” gives rise to the inaccurate but long-lasting characterization of feminists as bra burners.

1969–1970

Pushing to Legalize Abortion

Kennedy is among a group of female lawyers that challenges New York’s prohibition on abortion in federal court. The case, Abramowicz vs. Lefkowitz, is brought on behalf of hundreds of women who have experienced unplanned pregnancies and illegal abortions. Kennedy speaks at large Manhattan demonstrations demanding abortion access, and at an abortion rights rally at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, demonstrators hand out red coat hangers. “There is no need for any legislation on abortion just as there is no need for legislation on an appendectomy,” The New York Times quotes her as saying.

1970

A Legal Victory for the Right to Choose

At a hearing before the federal panel, Kennedy requests that three female judges hear the case, although (as she knows) there is then only one woman on the federal bench in New York state. The lawsuit and protests influence the New York state legislature to legalize abortion (up to 24 weeks of pregnancy) in 1970, making New York the first state to do so. The next year, Kennedy publishes the book Abortion Rap with Diane Schulder Abrams ’60 GS, ’64 LAW, which contains testimony of women who have had illegal abortions.

1971–1973

Politics and the Podium

With Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem, Kennedy travels the country to give talks on college campuses. Men in the audience often ask the women if they are lesbians. “It depends,” Kennedy replies. “Are you my alternative?” Disenchanted with NOW for being too moderate, Kennedy founds the Feminist Party to support the 1972 presidential campaign of Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination and the first African American to run in either party. Kennedy helps organize grassroots Black feminist groups. In 1973, Kennedy organizes a “pee-in” in Harvard Yard to protest the lack of women’s bathrooms in a building where exams are held at Harvard University.

1975

Support for Sex Workers

Kennedy works with activist Margo St. James of COYOTE (Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics) —who calls Kennedy her mentor—to advocate for decriminalization of prostitution and attends the United Nations’ International Women’s Year conferences in Mexico City to press the issue. “I think that neither the feminists nor the church nor the government nor anybody else has the right to say to women that they cannot choose whichever endeavor, for whatever reason, is best suited to their lives,” she writes in her autobiography. In New York, she begins hosting The Flo Kennedy Show on local access television, which runs until the early 1990s. 

1976

Color Me Flo

Kennedy publishes her autobiography, Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times, which, true to form, does not follow the usual conventions of the genre: It includes protest fliers, legal briefs, letters, and reproductions of newspaper articles as well as her own narrative of her life. “I’m just a loudmouth middle-aged colored lady . . . and a lot of people think I’m crazy,” she writes. “Maybe you do too, but I never stop to wonder why I’m not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren’t like me.”

2000

Feminist and ‘Flamboyant Gadfly’

After a long period of ill health, Kennedy dies in New York City at 84. The New York Times, which she had picketed decades before, quotes former Mayor David Dinkins: “If you found a cause for the downtrodden of somebody being abused someplace, by God, Flo Kennedy would be there.”

Judge Elreta Alexander

“Speak now, darlin’, because the truth will set you free.” 
—Judge Elreta Melton Alexander

1919

Childhood

Born in Smithfield, North Carolina, to biracial parents, Rev. J.C. Melton, a Baptist minister, and Alian Melton, a school teacher. She learns to read by age 4.

1931

Academic Priorities

Moves with her parents, who place a priority on their children’s education, to Greensboro, North Carolina, home of two Black colleges established in the late 19th century. Alexander graduates at age 15 from Dudley High School—founded in 1929 as the first Black high school in Guilford County—and at age 18, earns a degree in music from Agricultural & Technical College of North Carolina (now North Carolina A&T State University).

1938

An Educator

Works as a teacher of music, math, and history in South Carolina and elopes with medical student Girardeau Alexander. While he finishes his studies, she continues to teach. (The couple has one son and divorces in 1968.)

1943

Pioneering Law Student

Encouraged by a Greensboro minister to become a lawyer, she enrolls at Columbia Law School. (The top law schools in North Carolina did not accept Black students at the time.) Studies for the first time in a nearly all-white environment. Taking advantage of Columbia’s wartime accelerated two-year curriculum, she graduates in 1945. (The following year, Constance Baker Motley ’46 becomes the second Black woman to graduate from Columbia Law.)

1944

Becoming an Advocate

Begins working for Hope Stevens, a prominent Harlem lawyer, businessman, and civic leader, who was the first Black president of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce. She passes the New York bar the following year, and, in her first year of practice, she argues a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

1947

Breaking a Barrier

Commutes between New York and North Carolina, where she needs to establish residency to take the North Carolina bar exam and also demonstrate that she is an “exceptionally meritorious” applicant. Becomes the first Black woman licensed to practice law in North Carolina in 1947 and establishes a solo practice specializing in criminal and civil litigation, sometimes representing white clients and often arguing cases in segregated courthouses. 

1948

Inspirational Speaker

Delivers speeches to African American communities around the state on family, citizenship, and self-reliance. For a Citizenship Emphasis Day event sponsored by the Negro Citizens’ Council of Wilmington, North Carolina, she is advertised as a “forceful speaker” and “aggressive civic and political leader.” 

1950

Advocate for Equality

Sues the city of Greensboro on behalf of African American residents who are prohibited from playing at the public Elizabeth Park Golf Course. Alexander loses the suit, but the case leads the city to establish its first golf course for Blacks; Alexander writes the golf course’s charter.

1955

Supreme Achievement

Sets another civil rights milestone when she becomes the first Black woman to argue a case before the North Carolina Supreme Court. In McKinley v. Hinnant, she represents the seller in a real estate dispute and the court rules partly in her client’s favor.

1964

Challenging Systemic Racism

Defends four young Black men accused of raping a white woman in what was, at that time, the longest criminal trial in Guilford County history. Although the men are convicted, Alexander uses the trial to advance racial justice issues such as disparities in sentencing and bias in jury selection.

1966

An Integrated Firm

Forms one the first integrated law firms in the South, with fellow attorneys Ed Alston and brothers Gerald and Jim Pell.

1967

Using Her Voice

Publishes a book of poetry, When is a Man Free? The verse includes:

In Africa, the black man we tracked
Shackled him, and brought him back

To a life of misery,
And Tortures that have no rivalry.
When he cried out to be free
His body hung, dying, from a tree;
His children, we auctioned for pay;
Our charge for decency, thrown away

1968

A Historic Win

Becomes the first Black woman elected as a district court judge in North Carolina. Her campaign slogan is “The Symbol of Justice Is a Woman. Elect a Living Symbol of Justice.” Judge A, as she was often called, is reelected in 1972, 1976, and 1980.

1969

Progressive Justice

Creates the innovative alternative-sentencing Judgment Day Program for first-time juvenile offenders who plead guilty to crimes such as shoplifting, drug possession, or breaking and entering. Instead of incarceration, offenders do community service and write and give oral reports on the dangers of their crimes and their rehabilitation. If Alexander approves, their convictions are overturned and expunged from their records.

1974

Facing Defeat

Runs in a primary to be the Republican candidate for chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Facing racism that persists in the state, she loses the election to a white man without a law degree who works as a fire safety equipment salesman.

1981

New Chapters

Steps down from the bench and returns to private practice after marrying John D. Ralston, a white retired IRS officer, in 1979.

1995

End of an Era

Retires from the legal profession. Alexander is honored with the unveiling of her portrait in Courtroom 2A of the Guilford County Courthouse, which is renamed for her.

1998

Remembering an Icon

Dies at age 78. Her obituary in the Greensboro News & Record says, “Her influence will be felt for years,” and she will be “remembered most for her style, words, and humor in Guilford County courtrooms.”