Spartan Lawyer Summer 2019
In Her Own Words:
An Incomplete History of Women at the Law College
The College opens its doors to all classes, without regard to sex, color, or citizenship.
When the Law College opened its doors on St. Antoine Street in 1891, visitors to its austere lecture room would’ve been surprised to see a young woman reading law alongside her 30 male classmates.
Though women had been fighting for their place in the professional world for decades, it was still uncommon for law schools to admit female students. Lizzie McSweeney was one of the first students to enroll at the then-Detroit College of Law (today Michigan State University College of Law); she would graduate in 1893.1 McSweeney, like several of the early women students, had fathers and brothers in the legal profession; others had worked as stenographers in law offices. By 1899, the Law College counted four women among its graduates.2
Though they found a rare opportunity at the Law College to further their ambitions, they didn’t find a community: women in the early years graduated alone or in pairs. Their graduations were remarked upon in local papers under headlines like “Two Women Will Receive Their Degrees Next Saturday”3 and “One Woman Among Those Who Received Diplomas.”4
The Dearest Thing in the World to Me
Because their choice of occupation challenged prevailing gender norms, these early twentieth century alumnae were required to validate themselves as female in a field that was almost exclusively male. Reporters expressed surprise that women lawyers could be personable or attractive, remarking upon the “pretty little rooms” where female members of the bar worked as prosecutors, solo practitioners, and lawyers in private practice.5
The author of “Women Lawyers of Detroit” in a 1906 issue of the Detroit Free Press described his three subjects (one of whom was McSweeney) as “soft of voice, gentle in manner, and dainty and feminine in dress,” reminding the reader that his subjects were women first, and lawyers second.6 But McSweeney herself would have the last word, making her commitment to her work evident above all.
“We women who spend our days in the whirl of the business world appreciate home life in a way that no other woman can understand,” she said. “When I leave my office at night I cannot hurry fast enough to reach the coziness and seclusion of my home. Oh yes, I’ll confess that I’m eager for work when the morning comes, because my work is the dearest thing in the world to me.”7
Milestones for Women at the Law College
The Law College welcomed its inaugural class of approximately 30 students, including one woman.
Miss Mabel Griffiths, described as “brilliant” by the Detroit Free Press, was the Law College’s first woman valedictorian.
The Law College started its first student organization for women law students.
Barbara F. Keene became the first black woman in Michigan to graduate from law school.
Law College trustees decided to stop accepting women students; they permitted current students to complete their degrees.
Grayce Costavas Murphy, ’23, became the first black woman to be admitted to the state bar and to practice in Michigan.
Emelia Christine Schaub, ’24, was the first woman in Michigan to be elected as a county prosecutor.
The ban on female students was lifted, and women were once again allowed to enroll.
Elizabeth M. Gallagher was hired as a librarian; she would eventually become the Law College’s first female teacher.
The Law College hires Mary Steck Kershner, who would become the its second tenured female professor. She taught until 1986.
Kathleen Payne, ’77, was the first alumna hired to the full-time faculty.
Joan W. Howarth was hired as the first woman Dean of the Law College.
Hannah Bobee (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe) and Nova Wilson (Navajo Nation) are the first Native women graduates of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center.
Linda M. Orlans, ’87, became the first female Chair of the Law College Board of Trustees.
For the first time, students who identify as female made up 50% of the incoming class.
Gretchen Whitmer, ’98, is sworn in as governor of Michigan, the first Law College graduate to hold that elected office.
These career-minded graduates paved the way for future generations. Women like Grayce Murphy, who graduated in 1923, would start gradually building a place for women in the legal profession. Murphy was both the first black woman to be admitted to the state bar and the first black woman lawyer to practice in Michigan.8
Personally, I'm Tired of This Question
The Law College’s inclusive founding principles are well-known to generations of alumni. But the then-trustees’ decision to abruptly reverse course is less familiar to today’s students and graduates. In 1922, the trustees barred women from acceptance, blaming their decision on a lack of appropriate facilities.9
Theresa Doland Cornelius, a 1915 graduate and founding president of Women Lawyers of Michigan, spoke eloquently on behalf of her 25 outraged fellow alumnae. “The only facilities needed,” she said, “are class rooms and enough chairs for the students to sit in.”10
“We feel humiliated as citizens, as lawyers, and as members of the bar association,” she added.
This wasn’t Doland Cornelius’ first fight for equality: in 1919, she had argued a case before Detroit’s War Labor Board, advocating for female street car conductors whose male coworkers had refused to work alongside them. “No reason for depriving these women of their jobs has been advanced in the testimony other than the fact that they are women,” Doland Cornelius said during arguments. “This should not be a question of sex, but of ability. No one questions their ability. Personally, I’m tired of this question and wish it could be settled here once and for all.”11
She won her case, but the question of sex versus ability would certainly not be settled in 1919 – not in the United States, not in Michigan, and not in the Law College. Women, regardless of their individual merit, would not be accepted into the Law College for the next two decades.12
Always Wanted to be a Lawyer
It would take World War II (and the accompanying enrollment deficit) to change the Law College back to a co-ed institution. When the war caused graduations to plummet into the single digits in the mid-1940s, the decision was made to once more permit women to attend.13
The small, steady stream of female graduates resumed as women returned to the Law College; by 1946, a total of eight women were enrolled in classes.14
Stories of midcentury alumnae focus primarily on the novelty of mothers with young families attaining their law degrees. A typical example can be found in the Detroit Free Press’ coverage of Mary Buckley, ’59: the story runs alongside a photo of Buckley reading intently from a stack of law tomes – while ironing.
But the article also provides valuable context for Buckley’s entry into the legal profession. A mother of five small children, she had briefly considered attaining her teaching certificate when her husband, Francis, reminded her of a lifelong ambition: “Francis said, ‘Why go in for teaching when you’ve always wanted to be a lawyer?’”
Buckley also credited her husband with offering her “every encouragement” throughout law school: in addition to doing household chores, he willingly provided childcare while she attended class (a rarity in the 1950s). She was philosophical about the sacrifices they made. “Our social life suffered,” she commented, “but with five children you can’t go many places anyway.”15
Establish Steady Practices
When three alumnae – Sylvia Hart, ’50, Ann Donnelly, ’51, and Joanna Belding, ’51 – decided to rent an office together in 1956, it was the first occurrence of its kind in Detroit’s history, according to “Shingles Out: 3 Girls Get Together to Lay Down the Law” in the Detroit Free Press.16 Their shared address, no. 640 in the Buhl Building, gave them the chance to split rent, provided a convenient location for city contracts, and offered each lawyer “a spot to change her lipstick when she’s in court.”
Each of the three lawyers already had an established practice of her own, and they worked separately in the shared space. Their goals were pragmatic, rather than idealistic.
“They don’t consider themselves trail blazers,” reporter Jean Sharley noted at the time (somewhat dubiously), “although each was the sole woman in her graduating class,17 and although Detroit’s woman-lawyer force probably totals less than 25.”
“I don’t think that women in law today have any ideas about changing the world. The pioneering has been done by earlier women,” Donnelly told the reporter. “We, like most attorneys, want to establish steady practices.”
Thousands of Enthusiastic, Talented Law Students
When Professor Emerita Kathleen Payne, ’77, attended the Law College, women were graduating in larger numbers; 18 of the 265 members of her class were women. But Professor Payne cautions against painting an overly-rosy portrait of the slow march toward equality at the Law College: though there were women who excelled, they still encountered resistance in the classroom and the job market.
As a student, Professor Payne had no female instructors, either as full professors or adjunct faculty.18 She graduated fourth in her class and went on to clerk for a Michigan Supreme Court justice by day while teaching night courses at the Law College as an adjunct RWA professor. In 1980, she was hired as a member of the full-time faculty. She would be among the first women to attain tenure at the Law College.19
When Professor Payne told the dean that she was pregnant and would deliver her daughter during the spring semester of 1987, he assumed that she was handing in her notice. She declined to do so. Instead, she hired two alumnae who had been standouts in her classes to serve as adjuncts: Claudia Babiarz, ’84, and Laura Ritzman Fitzpatrick, ’83, graciously covered her courses during her maternity leave.
Professor Payne was a passionate advocate for bringing women into the classroom. “I worked on the Appointments Committee to recruit women faculty,” Professor Payne said. She chaired the committee that hired Professors Cynthia Lee Starnes and Brenda Quick in 1989. Today, the Law College faculty is 37% female.20
Just as faculty has evolved over the decades, Professor Payne has taught Secured Transactions and Contracts to an ever-changing student body. The Law College attracted a different kind of student in the 1980s: focused career types, often with years of professional work under their belts. Their employers often encouraged night school attendance and would pay their employees’ law school tuition. Professor Payne taught police officers, teachers, government workers, and auto industry managers.
Those alumnae faced considerable obstacles, but Professor Payne also experienced the energy and optimism that buoyed women in her early years of teaching. She recalled how the groundswell of support for the Equal Rights Amendment and the 1972 passage of the landmark Title IX legislation created the sense that the women were on the verge of having it all. In 2019, she knows those dreams have not been fully realized.
Professor Payne retired recently after serving the Law College for over 39 years. She is remembered with affection and respect by generations of Law College graduates for bringing her course material to life, and providing her students with support and encouragement outside the classroom. “I am very grateful for this rewarding career,” she said, “and for the opportunity it has given me to work with thousands of enthusiastic, talented law students.”
A Very Different Place
In the 1990s, the Law College was in the midst of transition. Within the space of a decade, it would celebrate its centenary, search for a new home, and re-discover itself on a Big Ten campus.
The Hon. Cylenthia LaToye Miller, ’96, was a night student from 1992 to 1996, and participated in this era of change. The daughter of the first black woman lawyer in Arkansas’ history, she remembers marching alongside her mother for women’s rights as a child. Her parents taught her to be a forceful – and respectful – participant in highly-charged discussions: about equal pay, the criminal justice system, and civil rights. She brought those lessons to the Law College, where she co-founded Diversity Week (an annual tradition that continues today), served as the first black female class president, and was a tireless advocate for, in her words, “shining a light upon bigotry, wherever it is.”
Judge Miller saw significant changes at the Law College over the course of her legal education. “We all knew it was changing rapidly,” she noted. “More women came, and more non-black minorities came, and you saw the whole culture of the school evolving – and I was happy about that. By the time I graduated, it was a very different place.”
The Law College was about to become a very different place indeed.
During Judge Miller’s time in law school, the City of Detroit marked 130 East Elizabeth Street (the Law College’s home since 1937) for demolition in order to make room for Comerica Park.21 Rather than relocate to another site in Detroit’s increasingly crowded legal education market, Law College leadership decided to affiliate with Michigan State University.22 Some graduates applauded the move; others mourned the loss of a beloved Detroit institution.
The Law College started teaching classes on MSU’s campus in 1997, making Judge Miller’s class one of the last to complete their legal educations on Elizabeth Street. She has built lasting connections within the Spartan community, mentoring students and recent graduates.
I shall always remember with what courtesy and consideration I was treated during my studies.
Today, she is a judge on the 36th District Court in Detroit, where two-thirds of her fellow judges are also women. She’s passionate about helping to elevate other women into positions of judicial authority. “I have colleagues here in our state who are the ‘only woman’ or ‘the first woman’ on the bench, and every election they’re in a fight to keep their seats,” she said.
She encourages other established alumnae to offer support (and tough love) to new lawyers. “Help them to develop and grow. Be a shield around them – and also be the constructive critic when it’s needed,” said Judge Miller.
A Good Example
By the early 2000s, the Law College had fully settled into its new home and taken on the character of the MSU campus – students were mostly attending law school directly out of undergrad, making the student population younger, less likely to have prior work experience, and increasingly gender-balanced.23 The night program, which had provided thousands of working professionals with access to a legal education during the Detroit years, was eventually shuttered due to under-enrollment.
This changing demography represented a distinct shift from the Detroit years: rather than being a respected local institution, the Law College was developing a national presence. Increasing numbers of grads were leaving the state; today, around 50% of students practice law outside of Michigan upon graduation.
Jill Walters, ’07, recalls the culture shock that she experienced when she left the Law College to practice. “I grew up in the Midwest, I went to law school in the Midwest, then I started practicing in the South. It was a different world there, especially for female lawyers. There weren’t very many,” she said. “There still aren’t, but it’s getting better.”
Over her time in the field, she has witnessed firsthand the power of women supporting their colleagues, especially in an environment where many still struggle to climb the ladder to leadership.24 Today, she’s the youngest female partner at Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP, practicing in the firm’s Raleigh, North Carolina office. The firm has a female CEO and an all-female executive committee, and Walters works under a female managing partner. It’s a unique experience. She has seen women (herself included) bringing “a different perspective” to leadership roles.
“You want to talk about the legal industry going in a different direction?” Walters asked. “This firm would be a good example.”
We women are a powerful force. We need to lift one another up, and we need to help one another out.
A Different Point of View
Nicole Samuel, ’18, is a graduate of the Law College’s very first 50/50 genderbalanced class, which entered in 2015.25 She graduated fourth in her class, and like many of her fellow East Lansing-era students, she led an active extracurricular life, participating in Law Review, Moot Court, and the Women’s Law Caucus.
In practice for a little less than a year, Samuel was a member of Warner, Norcross + Judd’s first all-female class of incoming associates.26 In court, she estimates that at least half of her opposing counsel are women, and to date, she has experienced her workplace as a very supportive and positive environment.
From client-counsel interaction to advocating for causes that resonate with women, she sees her female colleagues bringing their perspectives into their practice. To Samuel, women’s growing voice in the legal field won’t just make law more equitable – it’s making law stronger.
“It’s going to be more well-rounded,” Samuel said, “because there’s going to be more ideas coming from women as opposed to only from men. We have a different point of view.”
Pull Her Up with You
Not every woman who earned her place in the legal profession at Detroit College of Law or Michigan State University College of Law focused on advancing the cause of equality for women. From surviving finals as a 1L to being sworn in following bar passage, these are hard-won personal victories.
Every alumna in the Law College’s history has labored to fulfill a deeply-held aspiration: to become a skilled practitioner of the law. To achieve this goal, our graduates – from our very first class to our most recent one – have demonstrated impressive dedication and exceptional ability.
“I’ve always been sort of a tenacious person and I think you have to be, especially as women,” said the Hon. Annette J. Berry, ’88. “We have to set our own course. People think you fall into these things and you don’t – you fall into ditches, but you don’t fall into careers.”
Progress hasn’t always been rapid, nor has it been linear – even though more than half of this fall’s incoming class are women, they will inherit many of the same battles that were fought by their predecessors.
“To be everlastingly fighting for women’s rights is a wearying process and tries the patience,” commented the Detroit Free Press in 1922 when the Law College closed its doors to women. “As soon as one difficulty is settled, up hops another.”27 Professor Payne and Judge Miller both attested to feeling that weariness on occasion: the social injustices that they combatted in decades past continue to re-emerge.
But though the fights may be old ones, today’s Law College students are armed with something that their earlier counterparts didn’t have: a community. The solo women graduates of the early 1900s would become pairs, then trios – they formed friendships, then study groups, then the Women’s Law Caucus.
Today, our 4,561 alumnae are a nationwide presence, and they have an eye on the next generation. “We women are a powerful force,” Judge Berry said. “We need to lift one another up, and we need to help one another out.”
Judge Miller agrees: “If someone who I pulled up outshines me, then I see it as a great reflection on me,” she said. “I want you to go even further than I did, because if you do, it’s because I’ve poured my all into you and you took that and made it even better.”
“That’s what we should do. Reach back. Reach back to the next woman and pull her up with you.”
1Gwenn Bashara Samuel, The First Hundred Years are the Hardest: A Centennial History of the Detroit College of Law 9 (1993).
2Id. at 22.
3Bachelors of Laws: Two Women Will Receive Their Degrees Next Saturday: Misses Marsh and Hogan Graduate From College of Law, Det. Free Press, Apr. 16, 1899, at A3.
4Detroit College of Law: First Commencement Exercises Held Last Night, Twenty-Four Graduates in the Class of 1893. One Woman Among Those Who Received Diplomas, Det. Free Press, June 24, 1893, at 6.
5Women Lawyers of Detroit, Det. Free Press, Apr 22, 1906, at D2A.
8J. Clay Smith, Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944, at 470 (1993).
9Law Alumnae Upset by Barring of Women: Theresa Doland, Attorney, Says Feelings Are Hurt by Attitude of College, Det. Free Press, July 11, 1922, at 1; Law College Graduates 44: Class Last to Number Women as Members as Policy Changes, Det. News, Feb. 14, 1925, at 2. (The currently-enrolled female students were permitted to complete their law degrees.).
10Law Alumnae Upset by Barring of Women, supra note 9.
11Our Founding President, Theresa Doland Cornelius, WLAM (Mar. 03, 2018), https://www.womenlawyers.org/2018/03/24/our-founding-president-theresa-doland-cornelius/.
12Samuel, supra note 1 at 113-14; Law Alumnae Upset by Barring of Women, supra note 9; Law College Graduates 44, supra note 9. There is some controversy on this topic. The book The First Hundred Years are the Hardest, commissioned by the Law College to commemorate DCL’s centennial, denies that women were ever barred from enrolling, and explains the precipitous drop in female enrollment between 1922 and 1942 as the result of the Great Depression. However, the official change in enrollment policy in 1922 was well documented in the local press, as were the 1925 graduations of the last women admitted under the previous policy, and the eventual reversal of the ban. Additionally, the Great Depression didn’t start until late 1929.
13Detroit College of Law to Open Doors to Women, Det. News, May 31, 1942, at 2; Samuel, supra note 1, at 114.
14Samuel, supra note 1 at 115.
15Pop and Brood of 5 Cheer as Mom Wins Law Degree, Det. Free Press, June 16, 1959, at 18.
16Jean Sharley, Shingles Out: 3 Girls Get Together to Lay Down the Law, Det. Free Press, Mar. 3, 1956, at 10.
17Donnelly graduated in February, and Belding graduated in June.
18At the time when Professor Payne was a student, the Law College employed one female professor.
19The first was Elizabeth Gallagher, who obtained tenure as a librarian and became the first female professor in 1970. Mary Steck Kershner was hired in 1978, and had achieved full tenure by 1982.
20Michigan State University, Mich. State Univ. - 2018 Standard 509 Information Report 2 (2018)
21Landmarks Now Occupy the Site Where New Facilities Would Rise, Det. News, Sept. 22, 1996, at 12A.
22Joan Richardson, MSU Board Approves Adding Law School: Detroit College Will Move to East Lansing, Det. Free Press, Feb. 28, 1995, at B1.
23The total student body was 42% women by 2007. Michigan State University, Mich. State Univ. - 2007 Standard 509 Information Report 1 (2007)
24Accoording to a 2018 Law360 report, only 24% of all partners are women. Cristina Violante & Jaqueline Bell, Law360’s Glass Ceiling Report, By the Numbers, https://www.law360.com/articles/1047285.
25Michigan State University, Mich. State Univ. - 2015 Standard 509 Information Report 1 (2015)
26Warner Norcross + Judd, Warner Welcomes First Class of All-Women Attorneys: Eight Associates Will Practice in West and Southwest Michigan (Nov. 14, 2018), https://www.wnj.com/News-and-Events/News/Warner-Welcomes-First-Class-of-All-Women-Attorneys.
27Law Alumnae Upset by Barring of Women, supra note 9.