When young Hillary Rodham made an exploratory visit to Harvard Law School in the late 1960s her friend, a law student there, approached a professor and explained that Hillary was trying to decide between Harvard and one of the close competitors. Hillary recalled “This tall, rather imposing professor looked down at me and said, ‘Well, first of all, we don’t have any close competitors. Secondly, we don’t need any more women.’” She entered Yale Law School, which, at the time, admitted about forty other women in her class and had no female law professors.
Elizabeth Dole, former North Carolina senator, has recounted similar hostile reactions to her when she attended Harvard Law School in the early 1960s and Patricia Schroeder, former Colorado congresswoman, who attended HLS at the same time, has told similar stories of overt sexism. She remembers: “I think it was not until I got to Harvard Law School where it suddenly hit me that not everybody was quite as open and supportive of women as my father. …[T]here were only 15 women in the class and routinely male professors asked: ‘Do you realize you have taken this position from a man?’ And even the dean of Harvard Law School said the same thing, and he was then [a member of] the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He had all the women over to his house the first week, and he put us in a circle and said, ‘I want to know why you came here.’ His spin was: We let you in equally, but I don’t think any of you are going to use this [law degree].”
Fast forward to 2003: Elena Kagan is about to become the first woman dean of Harvard Law School and women made up forty-five percent of the 2003 graduating class. The curriculum includes courses taught by men and women that touch on gender issues. The number of women on the permanent faculty is fifteen. In the span of forty years women had finally made it into the hostile, male centric world of Harvard Law in an undeniably strong way.
Fast forward to 2011 and Kagan is now a Supreme Court justice, the fourth woman since the Court’s inception in 1790.
In several ways the rhetoric of the women of the Supreme Court has followed a similar trajectory.
The issues of gender have receded and the comfort of women justices to speak without having to address their novelty as women is apparent. Sonia Sotomayor’s quick and lively questioning on the bench at the start of her tenure as a justice and the repartee exhibited by Elena Kagan during her confirmation hearings is further proof of their confidence and comfort with their place at the table, so to speak. These are sure signs of progress. Glacial, but progress, indeed!
I hope you’ll read more in my forthcoming book: In Their Words: The First Four Women of the Supreme Court!