Waiting for the HLS Door to Open

1871 The U.S. Survey lists only three women attorneys in practice nationwide. Helen M. Sawyer boldly submits her application to Harvard Law School. The Faculty and Harvard Corporation discuss at length; the Corporation votes to reject Sawyer. (The previous year, Ada Kepley was admitted to the Union College of Law, now Northwestern, where she would become the first woman in America to earn a law degree.)

1872 Susan B. Anthony is arrested and convicted by an all-male jury for voting in a presidential election.

1873 & 1874 The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to require Illinois to admit Myra Bradwell to the bar. The Court also rules that women have no right to vote under the Constitution. It also denies Belva Lockwood’s application to the Supreme Court bar.

1878 Another woman, her name now lost, applies to HLS. Once again the lofty Corporation debates—and denies.

1880 The U.S. Survey counts 75 women attorneys.

1886 Seven women lawyers and law students at the University of Michigan form the Equity Club, the first national organization of women lawyers. It lasts
four years.

1899 Bryn Mawr graduate Frances A. Keay applies to HLS. She receives substantial Law Faculty support. Professor James Bradley Thayer reports that while he "would regret" the presence of women, he "could not deny the inherent justice of the claim." To circumvent the Corporation, the HLS faculty proposes that Keay attend law classes with the men and take the same exams but receive a Radcliffe College-issued LL.B. degree. But the Corporation puts the kibosh on this plan, stating: "The President and Fellows are not prepared to admit women to the instruction of the Law School."

1900 The U.S. Survey reports 1,010 women attorneys.

1909 Inez Milholland, Vassar graduate, applies to HLS. She submits a long letter to the dean and Faculty that strongly argues the case for her admission and persuades many faculty. Once again, unfortunately, the Corporation turns down a highly qualified woman applicant.

1915 Fifteen women petition Harvard to admit women to the Law School. Harvard rejects the petition; President Lowell claims co-education would have an "injurious" effect on the School. HLS Professor Joseph Henry Beale LL.B. 1887 is the father of one of the rejected women, Elizabeth Beale, who enlists his assistance. Beale opens the Cambridge Law School for Women in two rooms provided by Radcliffe. Nine dedicated students enroll, taught by HLS professors and graduate students. The School lasts for two years, but founders when few women apply.

1920 The Nineteenth Amendment is ratified; women may now vote in federal elections.

1930 Most major law schools in America — but not Harvard—now enroll women. There are 2,203 women law students and 3,385 active women practitioners in the country.

1940s By WWII, 25 percent of all U.S. law students are women. The percentage at HLS remains zero. But in 1948 Dean Erwin Griswold appoints Soia Mentschikoff visiting professor of law.

1950 The gates of HLS finally open. Fourteen women join a class of 520 men. Professor Barton Leach institutes "Ladies Day," a single class each month when women students are invited to speak. One ladies room is added in the basement of Austin Hall. Women may eat at the graduate cafeteria, but no dorm accommodations are offered (and won’t be until 1958).

1999 Today women constitute 43 percent of the 1L class. One in four lawyers in America is a woman.

Compiled from information provided by historian and HLS Visiting Professor Daniel Coquillette ’71, who is writing a new HLS history; items on Inez Milholland and the Cambridge Law School for Women are drawn from Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History by Virginia G. Drachman (Harvard University Press, 1998).

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