Women Trailblazers in Law Oral History
By Sharon Driscoll
In the last half-century, women in law have made huge strides. But women who came before them faced huge hurdles—and many of them overcame those hurdles, making history by attending law school and succeeding in the profession against the odds. Brooksley Born, JD ’64 (BA ’61), and Linda Ferren, executive director of the Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit, set out to capture their stories when they initiated the Women Trailblazers in the Law Project (WTP), a collaborative research project of the ABA and the American Bar Foundation.
“By opening opportunities for women in the legal profession and in many cases using their skills to further women’s legal rights, these women made significant contributions to the equality of women which must not be forgotten,” says Born, chair of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division (SLD) Women Trailblazers Project Committee, whose own story is included in the collection. Born was the first woman president of the Stanford Law Review and went on to have a successful legal career including serving as chairperson of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from 1996 to 1999.
At Born’s suggestion, the full WTP collection is now housed at the Robert Crown Law Library at Stanford; the Library of Congress and the Schlesinger Library at Harvard have selected oral histories from WTP.
“Our goal at Stanford Law has been to enhance public access to and discoverability of these oral histories for the benefit of law students, legal scholars, and anyone interested in the rich and inspiring stories of these pioneering women. It is our honor to preserve this priceless collection,” says Beth Williams, director of the Robert Crown Law Library and a senior lecturer in law at Stanford.
The project captures the full-life oral histories of women pioneers in the legal profession nationwide, memorializing their stories in their own voices and preserving their experiences and observations for future generations. Barbara Babcock, Judge John Crown Professor of Law, Emerita, recalled in her oral history her first semester contracts class at Yale Law when a well-known professor called on her.
“It was just wonderful and afterwards people gathered around me like I was a rock star and said ‘you’re going to be first in the class’ and ‘this is the most brilliant thing we’ve ever heard.’ So I rushed down to the payphone and called my dad. I said, ‘Dad, Grant Gilmore just called on me— for the whole class.’ And he said, ‘That’s nice, honey.’ And I said, ‘But, Dad, you don’t understand. This means I’ve made it; I’m going to be great.’ ”
Babcock says that the oral histories are full of small stories like hers, as well as important ones of great achievements, the details of which would be lost to memory without the series. “It was a great pleasure to spend hours with my friend and former student, LaDoris Cordell, remembering together,” says Babcock, who interviewed Cordell, the first female African American judge in Northern California, for the series.
“We are thrilled to partner with the ABA to capture the oral histories of women pioneers in the legal profession,” says M. Elizabeth Magill, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean. “It is truly an honor for Stanford Law to preserve this priceless collection and provide access to these rich and inspiring stories of women, in their own voices, who overcame barriers in a male-dominated profession and advanced the interests of all women.”
Staff at Crown Library launched the new WTP website in November; it will allow easy online access to the collection and resources. They will also focus on long-term preservation of print and media WTP content and digitized audio cassettes. Oral histories have been added to the Stanford Digital Repository. The project has taken the oral histories of more than 100 senior women who have made important contributions to the law and have opened opportunities for other women in the profession. In addition to Born, other Stanford Law alumni in WTP include Judge LaDoris Cordell, JD ’74, Mary Cranston, JD ’75 (BA ’70), Judge Shirley Hufstedler, JD ’49, Judge Fern Smith, JD ’75 (BA ’72), and Judge Miriam Wolff, JD ’40 (BA ’37). A book based on the collection, Lives in the Law: Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers, by Jill Norgren, was published last May by New York University Press.