Women of Boston College Law School
a progressive and social history
In 2004, Boston College Law School (BCLS) celebrates seventy-five years as a premier institution of legal education. The year also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the graduation of the first woman to attend the law school. Although struggles to enter the realm of legal study pre-date the entrance of women at Boston College Law School, as a young institution connected to a male dominated Jesuit college, it was extremely progressive for women to be admitted to Boston College Law School. I intend to illustrate how through periods of social change marred by mistreatment of women in society at large and in legal education, Boston College Law School has been progressive in its admissions of women as well as in the educational atmosphere women have had to endure.
To present an accurate portrayal of the social and educational times, I begin with illustrations of how women have had to circumvent social norms to obtain their current status. I first present a general picture of how women have progressed in the educational sphere and advanced to legal education. Then I offer a comparison of two extremes: an elite school with a history of opposing a legal education for women, and a state university with a history of fostering a female student body. I next offer some statistical information based on the general progression of women in law school.
In an effort to understand Boston College Law School and its progressive nature, I have tried to first illustrate how the undergraduate school compares in its admission of women. Then I explain how the law school progressed and began admitting women in 1941. To help set the stage, so to speak, for the decades of progression, I have put forth a general social history focused on women from 1940 to 2000. Finally, the primary focus of the paper is on the personal history of Boston College Alumnae based on personal interviews and answers to questionnaires.
II. Women in Law School
A. A Brief History
Women’s social mission was dependent on a complex view of femininity that associated it with nature, the emotions, and the soul and saw it as completely opposed to reason and intellect.
This was the nineteenth century, an age replete with Victorian sensibilities resulting in social prejudices that declared women were intellectually inferior and respectable women could not work outside the home. Educating women developed slowly with Worcester, Massachusetts opening the first public high school for girls in 1824. Oberlin became the first college to admit women in 1837 with separate courses, thereby illustrating ambivalence at truly educating women. In a revolt against Victorian domesticity, women began to steadily attend college from 1860 to 1920. However, the early institutionalization and licensing powers within the legal profession made it difficult for women to enter the realm of legal practice.
In 1869, Myra Bradwell became the first woman to seek licensure from a state bar. The Illinois State Supreme Court denied her admission claiming:
…when the legislature gave to this court the power of granting licenses to practice the law, it was not with the slightest expectation that this privilege would be extended equally to men and women.
She appealed the state opinion to the United States Supreme Court based on Fourteenth Amendment protections. Although the high court denied Ms. Bradwell’s claim, state courts and legislatures began to allow women admission to the bar.
The same year that Myra Bradwell sought licensure in Illinois, Arabella Mansfield became the first woman admitted to practice law in the state of Iowa and the United States. The year 1869 also marked the first admission of law students without regard to gender at St. Louis Law School with two women matriculating. The next year, 1870, the first woman to receive an accredited law degree, Ada A. Kepley, graduated from Union College of Law (now Northwestern). At the turn of the century, women were admitted to the bar of almost every state, but entrance into law school and acceptance by society continued to be a struggle.
Women obtaining higher education became more acceptable than obtaining professional status. By 1920, almost half of all college students were women, but social pressure on women to marry and please their families prevented many from pursuing careers. In 1910 the percentage of employed women reached 25.2%, but only 10.7% of married women were employed. These societal pressures prevented many women from pursuing law school admission. In addition, the entrance of women continued to adhere to a paternalistic view of women and resentment toward those who tried to shed their proper societal roles. In 1890, a member of the Board of Trustees for Columbia Law School illustrated this paternalistic sentiment when he stated:
No woman shall degrade herself by practicing law in New York especially if I can save her…I think that the clack of these possible Portias will never be heard in Dwight’s Moot Court.
Although even elite law schools such as Columbia began to finally admit women to the study of law, the atmospheres remained “inhospitable”. Law schools instituted policies such as informal quota systems to limit the number of women admitted to each class. The “male culture” predominated the atmosphere causing women to study alone, eat alone, live alone, and in some schools, like Brooklyn Law School in New York, women were “physically segregated in the classroom”. Unconscious sexism pervaded the classrooms through jokes or illustrations that offended women. Professors would either refuse to call on women or call on them to “singularly embarrass them” with crude topics such as cases involving sordid sex. Similarly, “hostile male peers sometimes accused women of being in law school to find a husband, or of taking the place of a male who, as a future breadwinner, needed the education more than she”. Women encountered hostile treatment at many law schools including renowned institutions of legal scholarship like Harvard Law School where women were not admitted until 1950.