When Agnes Neill Williams (LAW ’54) stepped onto the Georgetown Law Center campus for the first time, she broke 81 years of tradition.

In 1951, Williams became part of the first class of women to enroll at the law school.

“That was the beginning,” she said. “It was a little bit intimidating, [but] it was exciting to be a pioneer.”

Since it opened in 1870, the Law Center’s student body had consisted exclusively of men.

“The school’s administrators expressly asserted that the law was a male profession with a bylaw closing the school to women,” the law center wrote in its self-history, “The First 125 Years: An Illustrated History of the Georgetown University Law Center.”

Though by 1950 many area schools had opened their doors to women — The George Washington University did so in 1913 — and women were slowly being admitted to Georgetown’s graduate programs, the idea of a coed law school was unthinkable to administrators.

But in 1950, the university quietly announced the decision to admit women in an official bulletin released in the Georgetown Law School annual catalog.

“In view of the success women have achieved in many professional fields including law, Georgetown Law School has decided to break with tradition and accept women applicants,” the bulletin read.

The decision sparked a backlash. Joe Gaghan, a professor at the time, was among the strongest opponents to the new policy.

“I remember when the question came up, Dean [Hugh] Fegan and I rode a white charger up and down the corridors demanding that we retain the school as the last stronghold of masculinity,” he told professor Wendy Williams, author of a feature entitled “A History of Women at Georgetown University Law Center” that appeared in the fall 2001 edition of Georgetown Law’s alumni magazine.

According to Georgetown historian Fr. Emmett Curran, S.J., the opposition stemmed from a small but vocal minority.

“I think it was just … prejudice against women. They didn’t consider them part of the traditional Jesuit mission,” he said.

In the summer of 1951, Patricia Anna Collier became the first woman to enroll in a Law Center class. She was joined that September by Williams and six others.

In those first years, not all faculty members were convinced that women belonged at the law school.

Sherman Cohn (LAW ’57), now a professor at the law school, was a student at Georgetown Law when women were still a small minority at the school.

“There were a few [professors] who acted very badly,” Cohn wrote in an email. “My impression is that one, perhaps two, delighted in telling very raunchy jokes when he had a woman in the class. Another, a Jesuit, who was a very tough classroom teacher … seemed to be even harder when he called on one of the few women in the class.”

But after a few years, even Gaghan, who had sharply criticized the decision to admit women, acknowledged their contribution.

“We have had some terrific girl students here … and I’m the first to admit that I was just about as wrong as anyone could be wrong,” he told Wendy Williams.

Agnes Williams, then Agnes Neill, worked exceptionally hard in her classes and won the Beaudry Moot Court Competition in 1952.

“One of the professors … told me that he just wanted me to know that he had been one of the leading opponents of women at the law school … and that he had changed his mind,” Williams said. “And I was impressed that he was willing to say that.”

Though the atmosphere gradually grew more accepting, Williams said that the small band of female students sometimes struggled to fit in.

“The male students were friendly, but … I missed the companionship of other women,” Williams said. “I don’t think there was the camaraderie you’d expect, because we weren’t the same age. Once we had more numbers, we had more camaraderie.”

Williams found work at a law firm after graduation, but not all female graduates were able to obtain full-time jobs in their field. Williams added that she faced discrimination on the job.

“When I was practicing law, I felt that clients did not want a woman lawyer,” she said.

Cohn, who took a spot on the hiring committee for the Law Center in 1968, said building the legacy of women in law took time.

“With very few women in law school, there were very few applicants for teaching jobs, and then a school had to find a person they concluded were qualified,” he wrote.

During the 1970s, women began more aggressively organizing under the banner of the Women’s Rights Collective, a Georgetown group that pushed for larger numbers of female professors and students.

“When I joined the faculty in 1972 there were not many women law professors anywhere in the nation. Some of the male students were skeptical … [but] women were very supportive … in part because they were still dealing themselves with the challenge of entering a male dominated profession,” law professor Judith Areen wrote in an email.

Areen later became the first female dean of the Law School, in 1989.

“Groups like the Women’s Rights Collective also … pressured the faculty to add more women,” she said. “The numbers kept growing.”

This shift is reflected in the school’s student body as well. In the 1950s, women made up between 1 and 2 percent of the law school’s student body; by 2010, women comprised 50 percent of the incoming class, according to Law School admissions statistics.

Curran said that despite Georgetown’s delayed start to hiring women professors in significant numbers and increasing female student enrollment, the university has done well in its first half-century of integration.

“Even though it’s a short history of women at the law school, it’s a strong one,” he said.

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One Comment

  1. The Article JUSTICE FOR ALL:GU LAW’S FIRST WOMEN dated 3/30/2012 was correct, but left the details of my being the first woman from Georgetown Law “to complete the entire Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) program at Georgetown Law.” My degree was conferred on October 1, 1953. The quote is from a letter written on September 8, 2009 by Matthew F. Calise, Director, Office of Alumni Affairs.

    Another quote, “I can assure you that you have the distinction of being the first woman graduate to have completed the entire full-time LLB. curriculum at Georgetown Law. This is an achievement for which you should be proud. To paraphrase our President–you are a true daughter of Georgetown forever.” He also enclosed an official “Certification of Graduation.”

    It should be noted there was a transfer student, Ruth Pavan, who graduated 3 months before me.
    However, she did not complete all her coursework at Georgetown.

    As an aside, I believe I was the first woman from Georgetown to be personally sworn in as a member of the United States Supreme Court. I was sponsored by Dean Paul Dean, who attended the ceremony, along with my husband in 1966, Justice Earl Warren, presiding.

    It should be noted that I am now 91 years old and still practicing law, on a limited basis, in California.



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