Campus & Community

HLS fetes 50 years of women graduates:

6 min read

For many, it’s a bittersweet reunion

A standing-room-only crowd of graduates, professors, and students packed Ames Courtroom last Saturday (May 3) to listen to their distinguished colleagues discuss the experience of women at Harvard Law School (HLS) over the past five decades. The gathering was part of “Celebration 50,” the Law School’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of its first female graduates.

Charlotte P. Armstrong received a “Celebration 50” award in recognition of her membership in the first class of HLS alumnae. Armstrong, a former president of the Harvard College Board of Overseers and the Harvard Law School Alumni Association, commented on the remarkable transformation in the life of women in general and at Harvard in particular over the past 50 years. Spry-looking and vigorous, she spoke in a strong, clear voice and commended the Law School for its recent appointments of female faculty and administrators who no longer had to fear for their careers if they got married or pregnant.

“It’s wonderful to come back and see the women faculty popping babies all over the place,” she said.

HLS Dean Robert C. Clark took the podium and expressed his appreciation for Armstrong’s service to Harvard. Clark said that the women graduates in the audience “honored the Law School with their careers.” He mentioned the restructuring of the School’s curriculum during his tenure and said that female faculty such as Elizabeth Warren and Christine Jolls were at the forefront of a new emphasis on empirical legal studies.

Clark also described some of the challenges facing the new dean: the expansion of interdisciplinary legal studies, opportunities in Allston, new faculty appointments, and the need for more space and new facilities. He expressed great enthusiasm for incoming dean Elena Kagan, and said that he was “thrilled” she would be the new head of the Law School. Clark called Kagan a “spectacular” teacher and administrator.

Shortly thereafter, Bruce Bromley Professor of Law Arthur Miller welcomed all present to what he called a “bull session.” He invited the panel of famous female graduates before him to let fly with thoughts on their life experience as students and lawyers in a session titled “What I Wish I Had Known.”

American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen ’75 led things off. When asked why she chose to come to Harvard Law School in 1972, Strossen gave both Miller and the audience a surprise answer.

“It was actually financial,” she said with a chuckle. “Harvard Law School was the cheapest law school that I got into!”

Strossen called her time at HLS “an unpleasant experience,” and said that she felt conspicuous to her male classmates and all too inconspicuous to her professors who were all male.

“I did raise my hand a lot and not get called on,” she said. “I felt I wasn’t noticed as an individual.”

Jane Lakes Harman ’69, a Democratic congresswoman from California, said that she came to Harvard in order to prepare for a career in politics, but quickly found that the curriculum at HLS gave little attention to public policy. She winced as she remembered “Ladies Day,” the one day during each term when certain Law School professors would call on female students during classes.

Judith Richards Hope ’64, a partner in a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, said that she actually appreciated the ultra-competitive environment at Harvard. She said that she and her classmates regarded “Ladies Day,” as a mixed blessing. While it was stressful to be singled out, she said that she got support and coaching from classmates. She also said that some professors reached out to their female students.

“We were such a small group that we were made to feel very special,” she said.

But former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman ’65 responded that she and her female classmates were treated as “second-class citizens” at the Law School. She echoed Strossen’s complaint about being ignored by faculty and said that her frustration and resentment began to build up and affect her studies.

“I rebelled,” she said. “It was humiliating. … Having a professor say ‘You will not be called on at all during the year. You’re not good enough to be treated in the same way as everybody else.’ “

Debra Lee ’80, the president and chief operating officer for Black Entertainment Television, said that classes in the late 1970s were larger and had more women and minorities. But Lee said that, as an African American, she was inspired to become a lawyer by former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and that she came to Harvard wanting to change society. She got a rude awakening during her first year at the Law School.

“The first thing I learned at Harvard Law School was that Harvard didn’t support that approach to the law,” she said.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, the only nonalumna on the panel, cautioned against the “sense of self-satisfaction” that the Law School had cultivated due to the success of many of the extraordinary women who attended. She said that it was important to examine why the Law School is sometimes still considered a bad experience for women. She spoke passionately about the need to disassociate notions of leadership and competence from notions of masculinity alone and got applause when she stated, “there’s nothing hormonal about the capacity to argue a case, to be forceful and articulate.” Moreover, she said that the characteristics of a good lawyer were “professional, not (necessarily) masculine.”

The session ended with panelists offering their advice to young people contemplating a Harvard Law School education. Most were in agreement that the experience was rigorous and the credential extraordinary. Some, like Harmon, expressed a hope that the School, led by a female dean, with female faculty and larger numbers of female students, would begin to redefine legal education. Judith Hope cautioned, though, that students still needed to learn the “hard skills” of contract and tort law.

“Celebration 50” Chair Elizabeth Stong ’82 had the last word. She said that she would certainly advise students to come to Harvard, and commented that when she left the Law School she was “a little more gutsy.” The experience was tough, she said, but in the years since, she had learned to regard it as “a wonderful treasure.”