When Herma Hill Kay made the faculty interview rounds at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 1960, the school was looking to replace its sole female faculty member and the first woman to be tenured at a major law school, Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong. Berkeley wanted another woman.
Kay aimed to look her best on that warm spring day, pulling on white gloves and donning a suit and beige cloche-style hat that swept low over her face. She interviewed with professor after professor, all male. Meanwhile, the phone in Armstrong’s office kept ringing throughout the day. Armstrong eventually revealed the problem.
“You’re going to have to take your hat off,” Kay would recall Armstrong saying, more than five decades later. “The men want to see what you look like.”
For Kay, abandoning the hat was a nonstarter, given her hair’s lack of cooperation with the weather that day.
“Barbara gave me a stare and said, ‘All right, but when you come for your second day of interviews, can you wear a smaller hat?’” Kay recounted. “I said, ‘Sure, but I didn’t know there was a second day of interviews.’ Barbara said, ‘There will be now.’”
Kay’s story, which underscores how the first generation of women legal professors had to struggle to be taken seriously and establish a foothold within the male-dominated academy, is captured in a video interview she conducted with the Women in Legal Education Oral History Project several years ago. Kay, who served as dean of Berkeley Law from 1992 to 2000 and became one of the biggest names in the academy, died in 2017.
The project seeks to collect the stories and wisdom of the academy’s female pioneers and preserve those insights for current and future law teachers. Despite Kay’s impressive credentials, which included graduating third in her class at the University of Chicago Law School and clerking for a California Supreme Court justice, her appearance was still of utmost concern to Berkeley’s decision makers at the time.
“History helps those who come after more quickly recognize the challenges in our path,” said Mitchell Hamline School of Law Professor and project coordinator Marie Failinger in remarks at the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting earlier this month, where a panel of women professors discussed the oral histories and their own professional barriers. “To not know the history of the women who came before us diminishes our own power.”
The oral history project has been around since 2014, and it gained momentum three years ago when the AALS agreed to host it. Project leaders are on the hunt for interview subjects and volunteers to conduct and record those interviews.
The project has collected about 40 interviews thus far. They include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who taught at Rutgers Law School from 1963 to 1972 after being rejected from other legal jobs despite graduating first in her class at Columbia Law School. Stanford Law School professor Deborah Rhode; retired University of Michigan law professor Margaret Jane Radin; and former University of California Hastings College of the Law Dean Mary Kay Kane have also been interviewed.
“We’re a broad-tent project,” Failinger said Wednesday. “We do try to get the women who have been important historical figures because they have been deans, or important figures in feminist jurisprudence. But we’ve been trying to get interviews with women who have all different kinds of career paths.”
Time is of the essence. The first significant wave of women legal academics, who like Kay began teaching in the 1960s, are retiring or passing away. (Women trailblazers like Armstrong predate Kay’s cohort, but their numbers are miniscule.)
Five of the completed videos are currently available on YouTube, while many others are in various stages of production. The AALS plans to create a website that will make all the videos available in one place.
The American Bar Association is pursuing a similar but separate project dubbed the Women Trailblazers in the Law Oral History Project, which includes oral histories with more than 100 women lawyers, judges and law professors. Stanford Law School’s library is hosting the interviews on a website.
One topic that comes up regularly in the interviews of women academics is the challenges of motherhood—particularly balancing teaching and pregnancy. Ginsburg said in her interview that she was reluctant to reveal her pregnancy in 1965, because she wasn’t tenured and had only annual contracts. She borrowed clothing from her mother-in-law to obscure her pregnancy and didn’t disclose it until her contract was renewed for the coming year.
Julie Greenberg, professor emeritus at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, in her interview recalled a former boss at the University of San Diego School of Law telling her she could “take a few days off” to give birth. She left the school instead.
Carrie Menkel-Meadow, a professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law, has been teaching law since 1974 and shared her experiences in an oral history interview. She also spoke on the AALS panel, recalling that many of the women she entered the academy with—herself included—never had children.
Early women law professors also shared stories of withering evaluations from students who did not want a female professor and male students who challenged their expertise and authority in the classroom. Those dynamics persists for many women professors today, the panelists said.
The women who have been approached to sit for oral history interviews generally have welcomed the opportunity, according to Failinger.
“Most of these women feel very gratified that someone is paying attention to them as a historical figure and an important person in the history of legal education,” she said. “Many of them have not full reflected on how the pieces of their own history have come together to where they are, and they find that fulfilling.”
Lisa Mazzie, a professor at Marquette University Law School who has conducted numerous oral history interviews, said she has found inspiration in those talks.
“There’s a little bit of, ‘You can get there from here’ in all of their stories,” Mazzie said. “Listening to these women talk about why they went to law school—especially at the time they went—was really amazing and interesting. Their stories really resonate.”