Grit Paves the Path for Women Law Professors

January 31, 2022   •   By Brachah Goykadosh

Paving the Way: The First American Women Law Professors

Herma Hill Kay

HERMA HILL KAY (1934–2017) was the 15th female American law professor. In Paving the Way: The First American Women Law Professors, she writes about the first 14 female American law professors. One might assume a book about the first female law professors could be boring. This book is not. Instead, this book is an intimate portrayal of the struggles these first 14 professors faced, their grit and determination, and how they paved the way forward for women in the legal profession. Readers here will savor the successes of these female law professors and appreciate the challenges as Kay portrays them. Kay’s writing is electric: lively and engaging. She presents, in vivid detail, the lives of the first 14. This book includes a foreword by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933–2020), Kay’s friend.

The book is invaluable for anyone interested in the history of women in the legal profession. In writing this book, Kay has preserved this important history. Kay’s focus on the first 14 women law professors frames this history. She focuses only on “full-time law professors assigned to teach in the classroom, at schools that were both accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) and approved for membership in the Association of American Law Schools (AALS).” The first female law professor, Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong, started as an instructor in 1919 and then joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, as an instructor in Social Economics and Law in 1922. The next female law professor whom Kay discusses — Harriet Spiller Daggett — joined the faculties of her law schools within the same decade, the 1920s. But not until 1959 were there 14 female law professors at ABA-accredited AALS member law schools. This is to say it took approximately 40 years — four decades! — for 14 female law professors to be appointed to law schools in this country.

When Kay first began writing the book, nine of the 14 women were still alive. Kay interviewed them. She knew four out of those 14 personally, two professionally, one by reputation, four through her work on this project, and the remaining three secondhand. Her direct link to the subjects provided her with access and authority. These accounts are told by someone dedicated to preserving a history that belongs to her too. This book does not feel clinical or distant. Kay’s closeness to her subjects brings a clarity and tenderness to her writing.

Each law professor stands out in her own right. The issues that these first 14 law professors encountered and confronted are still relevant. One can almost imagine being a student of Soia Mentschikoff and learning from her “how women lawyers should present themselves to […] succeed in a man’s world.” One may find familiar Joan Krauskopf’s story about following her academic husband around the country and the difficulty in obtaining a tenure track position. One may not be surprised about how, when Margo Melli and her husband wanted to adopt a child, a female social worker felt that “a woman lawyer was not an appropriate model for a child, particularly for a daughter.” This is to say that although the book is historical, much of it rings true and will resonate with readers. And Kay’s codas — personal anecdotes at the end of some chapters — are extraordinary.

One chapter I found especially compelling was about the two professors who became judges: Ellen Ash Peters and Dorothy Wright Nelson. (There is also a chapter that considers female law librarians who became law professors.) Kay carefully considers the trajectory of their careers, from law professor to judge. Kay’s introduction notes that a recent female Supreme Court nominee — Justice Elena Kagan — also came from legal academia. Though since the introduction was written, there is another, more recent female Supreme Court nominee — Justice Amy Coney Barrett — the same premise remains. Justice Barrett — like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Kagan — also came to the bench from legal academia. Since there have only been five female justices on the Supreme Court of the United States to date, that means that three-fifths of the female justices — or 60 percent — were first law professors.

The catchall nature of the last chapter shows there is more to be written about female law professors. Unlike the previous chapters, this chapter talks about law professors from the 1960s to the 1980s, including but not limited to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Patricia Roberts Harris, the first African American female law professor; and so many others. This chapter is less focused, probably because from the 1960s to the 1980s, the number of female law professors bloomed. When reading these shorter snippets about more recent female law professors, I found myself wanting more background and history like Kay provided in the earlier chapters. (This is, of course, a testament to Kay’s engaging writing.) But the broad nature of this chapter indicates an opportunity for a more narrow, nuanced examination of many of the professors included here.

Kay bridged the world of the first 14 female professors and the many more female professors in the 1960s to 1980s (and to the present). So there is one thing I would change if I could. I would include a chapter on Kay herself. As Kay acknowledges in the introduction, she is the 15th American woman law professor. Perhaps including her own story, in her own words, alongside her accounts of others’ stories, was not the book’s goal. But Kay is part of this important history, another paver of the path. Though she says in the introduction that she writes this book as a “participant-observer,” the book is less participant and more observer.

The foreword by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg acknowledges that Herma Hill Kay has omitted herself from Paving the Way: The First American Women Law Professors. Justice Ginsburg provides more detail about Kay and their friendship. And yet I still wanted more. The preface by Patricia A. Cain and the afterword by Melissa Murray only underscore Kay’s importance to the narrative. Cain’s description of Kay’s “spunky streak” (her yellow Jaguar, for instance) and Murray’s description of Kay’s kindness paint a small portrait, but there is more to be told. As Cain notes in her preface, Kay made Cain promise that Cain would “never write a word about her until her own book on the first fourteen had been published.” Now that this book has been published, I await the biography devoted to Kay herself. (Kay passed away in June 2017, before the publication of this book.)

These first American women law professors paved the way for the rest of us in the legal profession — with grit. We feel that grit under the soles of our shoes. That grit pushes us forward.

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Brachah Goykadosh is a senior counsel at the New York City Law Department. Previously, she was an adjunct lecturer at City University of New York, where she received the Charles Hirsch Faculty & Staff Award in Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, among other publications.