Talk on admission of women into the Law School by Professor Barbara Aronstein Black, March 2003

I want to start by making a point perfectly obvious to all of us 每 and that is that we have to deal both with an issue of culture and with an issue of numbers, and, then of course, with the complex relationship and interaction of the two.  This is signally true of law schools, which have been, not only in origin, but long after other institutions had changed their ways, solidly male in culture: How and when that changed, to what extent it has indeed changed, and what numbers had to do with the change, is what makes the story.

Now, my assignment is to speak about women at the law school and

I*m unable to resist an historical approach 每 during the recent celebration of the 75th anniversary of the admission of women to CLS, I had occasion to write and to speak on the topic, and  the history captivated me.  So, we start with a look backward:  The time is 1917.

The Columbia Law School at that point was, you might say, the Augusta National Golf Club of the academy;  the Dean was Harlan Fiske Stone, who wrote: ※What I would like to see is a serious undertaking to establish an independent school for women.  This, I believe, is the proper solution of the problem... §, and repeatedly asserted that he ※did not want any &agitation* on the subject§. 


Columbia Law School was at this point the only graduate school at the university that did not admit women.  Forces both within and without the university were applying pressure: Virginia Gildersleeve, redoubtable president of Barnard, led the troops, with Nicholas Murray Butler right behind her.  The Women*s City Club of New York was in the fray; newspapers editorialized on the subject, and 40 leading members of the bar, including Benjamin Cardozo and Learned Hand, signed a letter urging that women be admitted; 17 of the 40 were Columbia Law School graduates, or had attended the School.

Thus the law school, in its resistance to the admission of women, was not merely in step with the times, but a stand-out exception, leading the ragged remnants of resistance, in the vanguard, as it were, of backwardness.  Even among law schools this was the case:  Harvard, it is true, was as bad, indeed in the end much worse, but Yale and other respectable law schools had long admitted women. 

Dean Stone retired in 1924, and in 1927 three women were admitted to the law school, but the grudgingness of the process is remarkable; if I had time I*d describe to you in excruciating detail the process by which admission was granted:  To watch the door opening just a crack, then a bit more, then, finally, wide, is to understand the tenacity, the ferocity, with which these men clung to the world they knew, tried to keep it inviolate, as if they were able to foresee that in their own century that world was going to be turned upside down. 



          They were of course right, but you wouldn*t have known it for many a decade:  Let*s look in on the fall of 1952, 50 years ago, when I arrived to take my seat for my very first law school class, one of 18 women in a class of 260.  Searching record and recollection I find, in 1952, no sign of worlds turning upside down.  Nor of any attempt on the part of the women students to start the process.  Our presence at this school was attended with no uncomfortable imperatives or implications:  The Dean and faculty did not have to agree to hire a woman faculty member; the admissions committee did not have to try to increase the number of women students; the curriculum committee did not have to consider whether to approve courses in subjects of particular interest to women; a woman could still be advised (as I was) that unlike my male colleagues I was not to expect my experience as an Associate-in-Law to lead to a teaching career; teachers could still start off each class with ※Gentlemen§; Professor Julius Goebel could still hold Ladies* Day; classroom hypotheticals could still utilize gender stereotypes; the organization of students* spouses was &the law wives* (not spouses) and a faculty member could still give a talk to the law wives titled:&The importance of a well informed law wife (educated but not equal)§.  Having a handful of women in the student body was not going to make a dent in the male culture, not going to require that any person within the institution change in any respect, or open his mind to anything new, or consider a perspective foreign to his own.  For reasons far too complex to go into now, although the women of my cohort were certainly in rebellion against societal constraints and sexual stereotypes, as students in the early 50's we did not level a challenge to the Columbia Law School, did not put the institution to any test.  In a law review essay that I wrote, I put the matter this way:

※My generation of women law students wrought change, but we did not have the numbers and we did not have the psychological make-up, the confidence or the consciousness, to bring about a revolution in our day.  And, not merely because we were not prescient, but because ours were individual acts of rebellion, we ourselves almost certainly did not understand where history would place us; it is clearer looking back than it was looking forward that we formed the advance guard of a social revolution.§


Now we move to the 1980's; in my memory the institution in that decade was at a kind of tipping point.  When I came back to the Columbia Law School in 1984 I found a school on which the male culture still had a grip, tenuous perhaps, but palpable, that is to say, experienced as such by the women within the school, and understood that way by many women who, because of that understanding, chose not to join us.  The number of women on the faculty was not impressive; skepticism about the new scholarship being done by women, about its claim even to be considered scholarship, was common; we had not broken through to a student enrollment figure of 40% women for our entering classes though most of our peer schools had.  For good reason, women of the Law School did not feel that the fight was over.  But there was good reason for optimism: Whatever the tugs of tradition, of institutional inertia, of custom thought, the reservoir of goodwill here was deep and wide, and the determination to bring about genuine equality was strong.  In, as it were, earnest of that goodwill and determination, at the end of 1985, my colleagues asked me to serve as Dean. 

Unsurprisingly, the first appointment of a woman as Dean of an Ivy League Law School created something of a sensation, and it had an immediate impact on the admission figures for women: 45% of the class that entered in 1987 were women, up from the 39% of the two preceding years.   The lesson was clear; taking a leadership role is not only right, but productive; those for whom the moral cases was not enough could see the economic case.  But, in the last years of the 80's,  the appointment having become yesterday*s news, the figures were less impressive; that had a clear lesson in it too.     


The law school student generation of the 80's (like that of the &50's) is fixed in the popular mind as conformist, as conservative.  But I can testify with considerable feeling that, at least at the Columbia Law School, student activism was alive and kicking, and that the word emblazoned on their banner was Diversity:  Indeed, we had The Coalition for Diversity, and a sit-in in the Dean*s office one memorable day and night.


And so we come to the twenty-first century: What we want, what we need, to be able to say is both that the numbers are good and that the male culture is a thing of the past.  Well, the numbers are quite good; while there is room for improvement on the faculty level, still, the numbers are good enough that my young women colleagues view this as a fine place to be a woman faculty member.  And as to the culture, there I do think we have the matter in hand.  I look around me today at our faculty, at visiting faculty and visiting scholars, at our administrators, at our Associates-in-Law, our research and other fellows, our graduate students, our JD students 每 and I simply see people.  The fact that something like half of the people in our community are women does not register; it is normal, neither remarkable nor remarked.  I look at our curriculum and I see courses and seminars in Sex Equality, Family and State in Historical Perspective, Intersectionalities, Race and Gender, Selected Issues in Children and Law, Sexuality, Gender and Human Rights, Topics in Law and Sexuality  每 and that was just the fall semester.  I look at our student journals and organizations and I see The Journal of Gender and Law, The Human Rights Law Review, The Journal of Law and Social Problems, The Law Women*s Association, The Domestic Violence Project, The Outlaws.  And more.  And I look at our alumni/ae and I see the thousands of talented women graduates who are making a difference in the profession, a difference in their nation and in the world.  When we look back to 1927, all we can say is that the Columbia Law School opened its doors to us;  today, finally, we can say that the School has opened its heart to us.