Richmond Law’s first female graduate, Jane Brown Ranson, L’23, led the way for approximately 2,500 alumnae, including 45 percent of the Class of 2013. She then promptly sued the faculty for defamation in a dispute over an award (see timeline below for details). Progress and false starts have punctuated the history of women in the legal profession. Courage clashed with convention, with each of the stories below carrying us forward.
First woman to enter a law school in the United States
Lemma Barkeloo enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis.
Court of no resort
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Illinois ruling that denied Myra C. Bradwell admission to the Illinois Bar because she was a woman. “This is the law of the Creator,” Justice Joseph Bradley wrote in a concurring opinion.
First woman admitted to the Supreme Court Bar
Supported by Congressional legislation, Belva Lockwood (right) was admitted after a previous denial. In 1893, she was denied admission to the Virginia Bar but was then admitted in 1894, becoming the first woman in Virginia to be professionally licensed.
Virginia explicitly excludes women from legal practice
New justices on the Supreme Court reversed Lockwood’s admission. A year later, the General Assembly amended the phrase “any person” to “any male citizen” in laws governing professional licensing.
Equal suffrage movement comes to Virginia
Eighteen women established the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia on West Franklin Street in downtown Richmond. It grew to more than 100 chapters and 30,000 members statewide. ESL later became the League of Women Voters.
A year after Congress approved the 19th Amendment, a three-fourths majority of states ratified it, ensuring a constitutional right to vote without regard “to sex.” Virginia ratified the amendment in 1952.
Virginia makes progress
on two fronts
The University of Virginia ended its ban on female law students. The General Assembly revised statutes governing admission to the Virginia Bar to include “all male and female persons.” Rebecca P. Lovenstein, who attended Richmond Law, and Carrie M. Gregory became the first women “licensed to practice law in all the courts of this State” under the newly revised laws.
First women elected to the Virginia House of Delegates
Sarah Lee Fain and Helen Timmons Henderson represented constituents in Norfolk and southwestern Virginia, respectively.
First woman graduates Richmond Law
Nearly a decade after the University of Richmond established Westhampton College for women, Jane Brown Ranson became the first woman to graduate from the University’s law school. In a 1923 letter, University President Frederic W. Boatwright wrote that she was also the first woman to earn a law degree in Virginia. Boatwright wrote the letter in response to being sued—by Ranson. Just after graduation, she filed two defamation lawsuits, alleging that, by honoring her with the “most improved” award despite consistently ranking second in her class, the faculty intentionally implied her inferior understanding of the law and injured her professional reputation. The outcomes of the suits are unknown.
First African-American woman licensed to practice law in Virginia
Virginian L. Marian Fleming Poe did what many other aspiring African-American lawyers did at a time when no law schools in the commonwealth would admit them—she studied law at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. She later opened a private practice in Newport News, Va.
First female federal judge
Calvin Coolidge appointed Genevieve Rose Cline to serve on the U.S. Customs Court.
Handful of Virginia women becoming attorneys
The 1930 U.S. Census identified 28 women in Virginia as lawyers.
First woman elected to the U.S. Senate
Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas won a special election early in 1932 to complete her late husband’s unexpired term and then won re-election. “The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job,” she said.
First female judge in Virginia
A 1976 obituary in the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va., identified Mary Robertson Painter, a judge in Botetourt County, as Virginia’s first female judge. It noted she was “known for tough penalties she gave to traffic offenders.” She served from 1934–67.
Code of Virginia goes neutral, again
General Assembly revised the language of laws governing attorneys to read “any person,” as it had read when Belva Lockwood first applied.
First female assistant commonwealth’s attorney
Lucille Lambert prosecuted cases in Arlington, Va.
First woman appointed to the full-time faculty of Richmond Law
Nina “Ricki” Kestin joined the faculty and taught tax law and professional responsibility principles. Tonita Warren had served the faculty as an adjunct professor in 1973.
Virginia Women Attorneys Association founded
At the time, three of Virginia’s 277 judgeships were held by women.
First woman appointed
to the U.S. Supreme Court
Sandra Day O’Connor (right, top) filled the seat vacated by Potter Stewart. She remained the Court’s sole female member until the 1993 appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
First African-American woman appointed to Richmond Law’s full-time faculty
Okianer Christian Dark (right, bottom) received the University of Richmond’s Distinguished Educator Award in 1990 and 1993 and the Distinguished Faculty Award from the Virginia Women Attorneys Association Foundation in 1991.
Gains in legal education
Women comprise at least a third of the first-year students at Virginia’s five law schools.
First woman elected attorney
general of Virginia
Mary Sue Terry, W’69 and H’86, was the first, and so far the only, woman elected to statewide office in Virginia. She also taught at Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies and served on the University’s Board of Trustees.
First woman sits on the Supreme Court of Virginia
Elizabeth B. Lacy served two 12-year terms on the court and retired to senior status in 2007. She has also served on Richmond Law’s faculty.
First woman represents Virginia in the U.S. Congress
Leslie Byrne represented the newly-created 11th Congressional District. Virginia has elected two other women to the House of Representatives, Thelma Drake and Jo Ann Davis, and none to the Senate.
First woman serves as U.S. Attorney General
Janet Reno became the nation’s second-longest-serving attorney general.
Still work to do
A survey on the retention and promotion of women in the nation’s 200 largest law firms reveals that women are underrepresented in the leadership ranks.
Fourth woman appointed to the nation’s highest court
Justice Elena Kagan joined Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor on the nation’s highest court. She was Harvard Law’s first female dean, the nation’s first female solicitor general, and the nation’s 112th Supreme Court Justice.
New leadership roles in Virginia
Richmond Law appointed Wendy Perdue (right) dean; she became the first woman to be dean of a Virginia law school. Cynthia Kinser First became the first woman to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Cleo Powell became the first African-American woman to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Celebrating 90 years of alumnae at University of Richmond School of Law
In March 1916, “a young woman,” as an official 1977 University history identifies her, applied for admission to Richmond Law. Her application was supported by Walter S. McNeil, dean of the law school, but President Frederic W. Boatwright rebuffed his recommendation, reminding McNeil “that by formal vote the trustees several years ago decided not to admit women.”
McNeil recommended a policy change in August and again the next year. Boatwright again demurred. “I am not inclined to think that the trustees would look upon the proposition with favor,” he replied. In a 1918 letter, McNeil called the president’s attention to pending legislation in Virginia’s General Assembly that would admit women to the practice of law.
The first woman was admitted to Richmond Law not long after, though the historical record is unclear about exactly when. The 1977 source, Reuben E. Alley’s History of the University of Richmond, states that the first woman was admitted in 1920. However, a 1986 Virginia Bar News article identifies Rebecca P. Lovenstein as the first woman to study law at the University of Richmond, beginning in 1919. She became licensed in the summer of 1920 after attending but, apparently, not graduating. The senior bulletin of that year lists her and a second woman, Florence Elise Minor (above, center), as law students. In 1923, Jane Brown Ranson became Richmond Law’s first female graduate.
Whichever year it took effect, McNeil saw the revised policy as consistent with the adoption of the 19th Amendment and the ideals for which the nation had just fought in Europe. “It is a privilege to offer the facilities to women on equal terms with men,” McNeil said, according to Alley, “thus carrying forward another principle of democracy—just in itself and beneficial to all.”