A Woman's Place
Fifty years after the first women graduated from Harvard Law School, alumnae come together to look back at the progress and ahead to the possibilities
Janet Reno '63 said she felt "the power and the purpose and the joy" of Celebration 50. But she and others who attended the event were also determined to do more than celebrate.
During the first weekend in May, nearly 800 alumnae joined the former U.S. attorney general to mark the 50th anniversary of the first class of women to graduate from HLS. Participants included a Supreme Court justice and a former head of state, former and current congresswomen, members of the first class, founders of public interest organizations and seasoned attorneys of all stripes, as well as students and faculty, such as Professor Elena Kagan '86, soon to be the next dean of Harvard Law School and first woman to head the school. They examined the state of the legal profession and the state of HLS, recalled the history of women's achievements and planned ways to further women's gains. And they celebrated the many trailblazers the institution has produced.
Mary Robinson LL.M. '68, former president of Ireland and former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, set the tone by congratulating HLS on the appointment of Kagan and challenging the institution to provide leadership on issues involving women and the legal profession, economic development and human rights. "This is a weekend that Harvard Law School needs," she said, "and I hope Harvard Law School will listen carefully and be changed." She urged audience members to take hold of these issues, "and don't let go."
The message reverberated throughout the program in plenary meetings and 17 breakout sessions in which topics ranged from the importance of the public and private sectors in an increasingly globalized world, to women in the criminal justice system, to bankruptcy law and economic rights. California Sen. Sheila Kuehl ' 78, who organized the inaugural event as a student, was honored "as the founding mother of the celebrations." She said, "At first, since women were only tolerated at the school, we thought we'd call it Toleration 25." Other speakers included Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan '81 and Pamela Thomas-Graham '88 ('89), president and CEO of CNBC. Dean-designate Kagan welcomed alumnae and their questions and suggestions, and promised that the school would not become complacent.
In a panel on international leadership, Rita Hauser '58 said that, at first, many law firms would not hire her because they could not see a woman in international practice. She eventually became managing partner at a large firm and ran its international department. "Today the opportunities are legion," she said, while urging all young lawyers to spend some time working abroad. "I don't think there are any more restrictions at all on women who wish to practice in this arena."
Cheryl Williamson Gray '82, director of the World Bank's Poverty Reduction and Economic Management division for Europe and central Asia, said managing an international career when you have children is not easy: "Somehow you do it. I'm not sure exactly how--a lot of humor, a lot of flexibility. And a good nanny probably helps too."
Alice Young ' 74, partner at Kaye Scholer in New York City, who has worked nearly 30 years in corporate practice specializing in Asia, emphasized the value of comparative perspective for what it teaches us about ourselves. "To be able to see how you negotiate in another culture and recognize some of the strengths and weaknesses of one's own culture is an important lesson for us as Americans to learn," she said.
When Reno addressed the crowd Friday evening, she urged the school and its graduates to look to what needs to be done over the next 50 years, including improving access to justice for all. She urged lawyers to listen to those to whom the law seems alien. "If we don't like what we see in this country," she said, "we can't stand silently by."
The weekend also was dedicated to listening to the challenges and accomplishments of early graduates. Judith Richards Hope '64, partner at Paul Hastings in Washington, D.C., described how much all alumnae owe "to the courage and the tenacity and the thick skins and the determination of the first class of women." She said, "These women were on probation for all the rest of us who followed."
Hope detailed for the audience the difficulties faced by early women students, from the paucity of bathrooms to the indignities of Ladies' Day, which ended in the late '60s when the ladies under interrogation opened up their briefcases and threw lingerie at their male classmates.
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