Celebration 45

The Women Who Came Knocking
"I feel like I’m home," Judith Richards Hope ’64 told the audience when she opened the Saturday morning program in Ames Courtroom.

"The overall impression that we were beat upon, kept down, is not true," the self-proclaimed "old-timer" declared. "And it’s not true that Harvard Law School kept women out till 1950; the Harvard Corporation kept women out," said the Corporation’s first woman member. The door to HLS remained closed to women until 1947, the year Erwin Griswold ’28 S.J.D. ’29 appointed the first woman visiting professor. "Soia Mentschikoff marched into Faculty Club, sat at the main table, and, voila! the Faculty Club was integrated." The classrooms of HLS soon followed.

Ginsburg mother and daughterHope drew laughter when she mentioned the notorious "Ladies Day" when women were called on in class, and the "toilet problem" that arose when the first female 1Ls arrived on a campus with all-male facilities. She also recalled the annual "Griswold Dinners," hosted by the late dean and Mrs. Griswold to welcome the newest tiny cadre of 1L women. Seated in a circle in the Griswold living room, each woman in turn responded to the dean’s question of why they were taking the place of a man. "It sounds awful," Hope said, "but I later received more than 100 rejections from law firms, all of which asked, ‘Why are you trying to take the place of a man?’ Erwin Griswold prepared us for those questions."

Dean Clark and Harvard University President Neil Rudenstine reflected on the progress of women at Harvard and what still needs to happen, from their vantages leading the School and the University. When the dean took questions, Susan Estrich ’77 raised an issue that was echoed throughout the weekend. "Are there any empirical studies of women grads tracking their progress" in terms of salaries, promotions, and other criteria, she asked, noting that "a substantial gap" between men and women opens up right after graduation. She urged the Law School to consider how it might play a larger role in the profession "to make women’s achievement less rocky."

The dean agreed that more information and evidence about HLS graduates, men as well as women, is essential. He said the strategic planning committee examining the School’s connections to practice is addressing this issue in detail, and that he will be reporting its findings.

The clock then turned back to the 1870s, when Daniel Coquillette ’71, a visiting professor to HLS and professor at Boston College Law School, talked about the early women who came knocking on the School door. (See sidebar.) "I am an historian. More than others I am aware of ghosts," he said. "Surely in this room with us today are the spirits of those brave women who tried and failed, who hoped and dreamed, and never saw the door open. Our job today is to make a Harvard Law School that is worthy of them."

Next Justice Alice Desjardins LL.M. ’67, the first woman to serve on the National Board of Appeal in Canada, introduced Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who presented the weekend Welcome Address. Desjardins highlighted Ginsburg’s precedent-setting contributions to countering gender stereotypes both in the Court and in her legal practice. She called Ginsburg "the legal architect of the modern women’s movement," and said Ginsburg’s role on the Court was "not to feminize the court, but to humanize it."

Although the associate justice is a 1959 graduate of Columbia Law School, she attended HLS from 1956 to 1958, in a class with nine women. "I rejoice in the changed complexion of the School from 1953 to 1998," Ginsburg told her listeners.

Ginsburg said her HLS Civil Procedure professor, Benjamin Kaplan, remains her model "of what a good teacher should be." Hart and Sacks’s Legal Process materials and course "guided my thinking about the law." She mentioned her husband’s illness with cancer in his third year at HLS, when he could attend only a handful of classes and relied on classmates’ notes and bedside tutorials. "The myth of the fiercely competitive Harvard Law student does not describe our experience."

"The atmosphere [at HLS] was not friendly to women, but it was challenging," said Ruth Abrams ’56, associate justice on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. "My feeling of being an outsider later helped me as a woman prosecutor. I learned how to handle myself in a hostile situation, when the police were yelling, the judges and opposing counsel unfriendly."
But Ginsburg also said that the Law School, like the University, was steeped in history, sensitive to tradition, and therefore resistant to change. After her husband, Martin Ginsburg ’58, graduated from HLS and accepted a position in New York, she transferred to Columbia and requested that she be awarded an HLS degree following satisfactory completion of her third year. Her request was denied. In 1977, after the Harvard Law Record reported that the School’s spousal transfer policy had been extended to "significant relationships," Martin Ginsburg wrote a witty letter to the Record about his wife’s experience, which ultimately cost HLS a remarkable alumna. Justice Ginsburg’s listeners chuckled throughout her reading of her husband’s letter. They burst out laughing when she read the Record editor’s note: "As Mr. Ginsburg told us, the Ruth in the letter is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, professor of law at Columbia and general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union. Just think what else she might have accomplished had she enjoyed the benefits of a Harvard degree."

Janet Reno’s Sword and Shield
The weekend’s main event: U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ’63 was back on the Law School campus to accept the Celebration 45 Award.

Introducing Reno, Justice Ginsburg quoted from the attorney general’s words of praise for Jamie Gorelick ’75, her former deputy, and applied them to Reno herself: "She did not take high office to be popular, but she is popular nonetheless. She strives to do the right thing over the expedient thing."

Harvard Law School "has meant so much to me," Reno told her listeners. "It taught me to use law to help others. I loved the law when I graduated. But now, after five and a half years as attorney general, I love it even more. I am in awe of its magnificence, and alert to its vulnerability and fragility. People have talked about the discouragements of public service—and these years have been extraordinarily challenging. . . . [Y]ou get cussed at, spoken to with contempt and disgust. Yet I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I commend public service to all now at HLS: it’s a lot better than billable hours."

Reno touched on her experiences as attorney general, including collaborations with counterparts in emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and other struggling regimes. "I have new appreciation for how difficult it is to establish the rule of law and make it stick," she said.

"Attorney general of the United States of America, passionate advocate for the rights and welfare of all the people; with fairness, objectivity, and integrity you serve the nation and uphold the rule of law, making you a shining example of the dedicated and principled public servant."

She described moments when legal institutions have functioned "as they should, to put people first and solve problems." In the aftermath of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, Reno faced the overwhelming challenge "of picking up the pieces, putting together a case, and upholding rule of law without trampling people’s rights." The legal system worked, she said, because the people of Oklahoma City got involved and made it work.

But too often legal institutions exclude the poor, Reno said, and fail to address their problems. "We must make the law real for all Americans" by establishing "more effective legal structures." She proposed a program of community advocates to address tenant-landlord disputes and other local problems. Where the fabric of community is rewoven around troubled families and youths, she noted, "the lawyers are leading the way."

Janet Reno talks with Dean ClarkReno also stressed the need "to end the culture of violence in this nation," citing stark data on gun homicides. "Ladies, let’s lead the way to ensure an effective prosecution for every illegal use or possession of guns in this country." She called for teaching negotiation and ADR skills in schools and applying them in police stations.

Reno concluded: "We received at Harvard Law School a gift. We worked hard for it. I hope we’ve used it wisely. And we have more to do. We can never forget how important it is to be the sword and the shield."

Previous SegmentTable of Contentsnext segment