recognizes astral advances of women in law
Long before there was Betty Friedan, or even women's suffrage, an 1881
graduate of Boston University School of Law waged a lonely battle to become
the first woman lawyer in Massachusetts. Lelia Robinson triumphed in 1882,
when the state legislature unanimously passed a bill permitting women
to practice law under the same conditions as men.
"The woman lawyer in the abstract has not yet attained her majority,"
Robinson wrote in a magazine article several years later. "The novelty
of her very existence has scarcely begun to wear off and the newspapers
publish and republish little floating items about women lawyers along
with those of the latest sea-serpent, the popular idea seeming to be that
the one is about as real as the other."
At last the reality seems to have sunk in. Women occupy many powerful
positions in the legal profession, not to mention two seats on the Supreme
Court, and recent statistics show that more than 50 percent of students
admitted to law schools in the United States are female.
Numerous School of Law alumnae besides Robinson have helped to blaze career
trails for women, and to celebrate their achievements, the school recently
held a panel discussion entitled The Herstory of Women at BUSL. Speaking
at Barristers Hall, the six faculty and alumnae panelists admonished the
next generation of women not to take their predecessors' hard work for
"We have opened the doors," said keynote speaker Judge Sandra
Lynch (LAW'71), the first woman appointed to the United States Court of
Appeals for the First Circuit, "and you had better go barging in
Sponsored by the School of Law Women's Networking Association and Women's
Law Association, the talk was inspired in part by stories of pioneering
BU alumnae, whose photographs adorn several floors of the LAW tower. Among
these are Robinson, the school's first woman graduate, Sadie Lipner Shulman
(LAW'11), one of the first two women judges in New England (she and Emma
Fall Schofield, a 1908 LAW graduate, were sworn in on the same day), Consuelo
Northrop Bailey (LAW'25), a lieutenant governor of Vermont and the first
woman in the nation to be elected to such a post, and Elizabeth Holloway
Marston (LAW'18), who collaborated with her husband, William Moulton Marston,
on the development of the polygraph.
When William dreamed up the comic book character Wonder Woman as a crusader
against prejudice, sexism, and other evils, Elizabeth was his inspiration.
Current students Danielle Drissel (LAW'03) and Amanda Hill (LAW'03) had
often admired the pictorial displays, created by Margo Hagopian, assistant
to the dean and the law school's unofficial historian.
"I thought that particularly right now, when women are becoming a
majority of law school students nationally, it would be a great time to
celebrate that BU is, to a significant extent, responsible for making
that happen," Drissel says. "Margo made the initial information
available, and we decided that instead of just having it hang on the wall,
we should have a live, interactive discussion."
Describing what it was like to attend law school before the women's movement
was in full swing, two of the senior panelists spoke candidly of the insults
and chilly silences they endured from male professors and classmates.
Yet Lynch does not look back on those years with bitterness.
"I actually loved law school," she told the audience of mostly
female students, faculty, and alumni. "The disciplines of the law
could be used, I believed then, as I do now, to bring about greater equality
and justice in our society. The crucible of discrimination toughened me
in ways that made me able to face a career in a changing profession."
Glendora McIlwain Putnam (LAW'48), a retired equal opportunity officer
with the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, said she and her female
classmates overcame the challenges of law school by developing strong
friendships with one another. "We knew we were making it possible
for women to come behind us and be treated as serious students of the
law," she said, "so we made ourselves serious students of the
Panelists spoke often of the need for career women to maintain their network
of professional contacts, and also offered a pep talk for students who
will one day grapple with the competing demands of work and motherhood.
Michelle Rhee (LAW'91), a junior partner at Hale and Dorr and mother of
a toddler son, noted that in the past year, everyone who made partner
in her firm was either a man or worked 3,000 hours a year. "I'm not
going to work 3,000 hours," she said, "but I can add value in
To avoid guilt, she added, it's important to make clear choices about
one's life and career. "If you go into work and it's a choice between
serving this client and serving my child, it's going to be a battle every
day," she says. "You have to go into it with open eyes, make
your decisions, and don't look back."
Also speaking on the panel were LAW Professor Frances Miller (LAW'65),
winner of BU's 1989 Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching and
an expert on trusts and estates, LAW Professor Tamar Frankel, the first
woman faculty member at the school and a leading expert in the areas of
financial system regulation and corporate governance, and Jill Kasle (LAW'72),
an associate professor and university marshal at George Washington University,
where she teaches constitutional law and telecommunications law and policy.