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LAW | summer 2003

Taking the Law in her Hands

Ms. Summer 2003

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It was Ladies' day at Harvard Law School. A day that the women subjected to it never forgot. Professor W. Barton Leach, who taught property, would allow female students to speak only on Ladies' Days.

Judith Richard Hope, Class of '64 and the author of Pinstripes and Pearls (Scribner), recalls the day: "On Halloween 1961, like trained seals doing tricks for an eager audience, the five women in Leach's section, dressed in high heels, skirts, blazers and pearls, were ready. They left their seats in the front row of the large, fan-shaped classroom seating, mounted the steps to the dais, sat down on five folding chairs that had been arranged in a line facing the rest of the class, crossed their ankles, and waited calmly for the first question they already knew was coming.

"Leach left the dais and went to the middle of the classroom, where he stood to interrogate them, surrounded by 140 or so male students, who hooted and laughed and sometimes stomped their feet, thinking it was marvelous fun. Actually, most of the women thought it was fun, too. It seemed totally normal for Harvard Law School then. Nancy (my classmate) remembers, 'It was sort of like Picnic at the Zoo Day-- and we were the animals in the cages.'"

Elena Kagan
Dean Elena Kagan, a Harvard Law School first. Photo by Justin Ide/Harvard News Office

Well, it's Ladies Day every day now at Harvard Law School-- 2003 style. Not only does the school have a 45 percent female student body but also, on July 1, 2003, the nation's "oldest continuously operating law school" will have the first female dean in its long history.

Elena Kagan, a professor at the law school, is both modest and mindful in recognition of history in the making. "I think it is a milestone," Kagan says, "a great thing that shows how far Harvard has come and how far the legal profession has come, in terms of women's position. It's fitting, and very nice, that it's happened on the 50th anniversary of the first graduating class at Harvard to include women. I suspect that some students will find it inspiring."

Kagan, a sports buff and opera devotee, grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Her mother was an elementary school teacher, her father a lawyer; both were the first in their families to attend college. Though Kagan began building a breathtaking academic resume-- summa cum laude at Princeton and a master's in philosophy at Oxford before attending Harvard Law-- her goals in life were less focused. Looking back, Kagan says, "I think I was one of these students who go to law school for all the wrong reasons, because they can't figure out exactly what else they want to do. I wasn't absolutely sure I would go to law school. But once I arrived, I actually loved it right away, and I really felt as if I had found something that I was good at."

To say the least.

Kagan graduated magna cum laude in 1986 and went on to clerk for two famous liberal jurists, Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and Court of Appeals Judge Abner Mikva.

A legal career mixing litigation in such diverse areas as commercial law criminal defense and First Amendment work followed. In 1993, she served as advisor to Senator Joseph Biden Jr. for the confirmation hearings of now-- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In 1995, Kagan joined the faculty of the University Chicago Law School. From there she signed up with the Clinton administration, first as associate counsel to the president, then as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy.

"The issues were fascinating," says Kagan. "Anyone who works at the White House will tell you it's great fun." The New Republic called her "Wonderwonk" for her skillful role in crafting anti-tobacco legislation. She was also well known around the White House as a feminist and as a power advocate for progressive issues.

In 1999, at age 39, Kagan's recogition garnered her a nomination to
U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The high profile D.C. Circuit
Court, called by some the "second highest court in the land," has critical jurisdiction over a number of federal regulatory matters, including challenges to the Federal Communications Commission and the Environmen Protection Agency. But a judgeship for Kagan was not to be. Her nomination languished for 18 months before it expired-a result, some say, of quiet Republican opposition.

Kagan herself has no regrets. Of new appointment she says, "There's no job I'd rather have."