100 years of women at Richmond Law

April 10, 2023
Jane Brown Ranson, Class of 1923, broke new ground when she became Richmond Law's first female graduate. A century later, another woman graduate is at the heart of a milestone for the school.
by Matthew Dewald

This year marks the centennial of the graduation of the first woman from Richmond Law. Jane Brown Ranson (above, left) graduated in 1923, less than a decade after the university established Westhampton College and began accepting women as undergraduates in significant numbers. A century after this important milestone, the school is celebrating another unique first: its first professorship named in recognition of a woman, thanks to a generous gift from the family of Nancy Litchfield Hicks, L’85 (above, right).

Early days

Ranson entered Richmond Law at a time of significant change for women in the legal profession. Since the late 1880s, Virginia’s legislators had been considering and rejecting bills that would have permitted their licensing. Even as other states increasingly opened the profession, Virginia’s legislature emphatically underscored its opposition in 1895, amending laws governing professional licensing by replacing the phrase “any person” to “any male citizen” after a woman named Belva Lockwood successfully sued and was temporarily admitted to the Virginia bar in 1894 based on the existing statute’s gender-neutral language. When Virginia finally admitted women to the bar in 1920, it was one of the last three states — alongside Rhode Island and Delaware — to do so.

The decisive push came from the adoption of the 19th Amendment. Although Virginia’s legislators voted against ratifying it, they recognized that it would nonetheless take effect nationally and enacted what historian Peter Wallenstein calls “contingent legislation” in his book Blue Laws and Black Codes: Conflict, Courts, and Change in Twentieth-Century Virginia. They did so “recognizing a relationship between exercising the franchise [i.e., voting] and practicing the law,” he wrote. The law’s new language became “all male and female persons,” and then, with another tweak in 1922, “all persons, male and female.

Richmond Law was then a night program offered by Richmond College, soon to be the University of Richmond. Documentation from the Library of Virginia indicates that it was ahead of the commonwealth. A woman named Rebecca Lovenstein — a Lithuanian immigrant and married mother of two who was in her early 30s — began taking classes as early as 1918. She and Ranson were two of four women enrolled in Richmond’s law program in 1920, according to Wallenstein.

A 1919 yearbook picture of Elizabeth Tompkins from her senior year.Lovenstein did not stay to complete her law degree. Instead, she made history. As soon as women became eligible to sit for the bar examination in Virginia, she and another woman became the first two Virginia women to pass it, in June 1920. Lovenstein almost immediately qualified before a judge in Richmond’s Hustings Court and, on July 1, 1920, paid her fee and became the first woman licensed to practice in Virginia. This former Richmond Law student set another milestone in 1925 when she became the first woman to present oral arguments at Virginia’s Supreme Court. In an amusing twist, the case, Mazer v. Commonwealth, was about a violation of prohibition laws, though in this case the prohibition in question targeted alcohol, not women. She and co-counsel won the case.

In 1923, Ranson became the first woman to complete the law degree at Richmond and, in doing so, became one of the first two women to earn a law degree in Virginia. Alongside her was a fellow Spider, Elizabeth Tompkins (left), a 1919 graduate of the newly formed Westhampton College, who was the first woman graduate of the law school at the University of Virginia, also in 1923.

Little documentation exists from Ranson’s time in law school, but a bit of the atmosphere in which the women studied can be gleaned from sources tied to Tompkins. One source is a letter that she wrote to her father in 1921 asking him to let her transfer to a different law program. She wrote that she was frustrated that “there is no one to argue with when I leave class at noon. I have no law afterwards. ... [Meanwhile,] the boys at practically every fraternity have a round table and discuss law every night for an hour. Of that I know nothing.”

The law program where she preferred to be was Richmond Law. In addition to persuading her father of the financial benefits of her living at home, she praises its reputation as “getting to be nothing to be snipped at.” She says that one of its faculty — Walter McNeill, namesake of today’s McNeill Law Society — “is considered good by all” and notes that another professor is responsible for the state bar exams, “which I am turning heaven and earth to pass.” Her father, apparently, resisted the move, and things apparently settled down for her. In 1980, she told Virginia Law Weekly that “it took [male classmates] one semester to find out that I was not after a husband and another semester to find out that I could do the work. After that everything was fine.”

In 1923, Ranson became the first woman to complete the law degree at Richmond and, in doing so, became one of the first two women to earn a law degree in Virginia.

Another source — and possible source of Tompkins’ consternation — is her dean at U.Va., William Lile. In his book, Wallenstein quotes Lile referring to his school’s three women students as “these new and strange beings” in a 1920 report to the president. When Tompkins graduated in 1923, Lile recorded in his diary that she was “an unusually capable person” but nevertheless predicted that “it will not be long before she deserts the profession” and will be found “rolling a baby carriage instead of wrangling in court.” He was very wrong, despite the post-graduation obstacles she faced breaking into the profession. She went on to a long legal career, dying at age 83 just two years after retiring from practicing. Over these years, she also took on leadership roles at Richmond, including serving as a trustee, and received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1970. Since 1984, the law school has awarded a scholarship named in her honor; it has had 39 recipients to date.

Ranson may have encountered some difficulties in law school herself. Not long after graduation, she used her legal education to sue the university. At issue was a “most improved” award she received from the law school’s faculty, despite consistently ranking second in her class. In two defamation suits, she alleged that, through the award, the faculty intentionally implied that she had an inferior understanding of the law, thereby injuring her professional reputation. The outcomes of the suits are unknown.

Similarly, little is known about Ranson’s life. Historical records tied to a woman with her name who was then living in Richmond indicate that she was close to several men with legal careers. Her father was a judge, and she married an attorney in 1904. Tragedy quickly struck the newlyweds when her husband died the next year of tuberculosis after leaving Jamaica on a United Fruit Co. steamer, according to his obituary. The 1920 census, conducted around the time she enrolled at Richmond, lists her as a 35-year-old widow. It also gives some indication of her more recent life, indicating that she had become a trained nurse and was working as a supervisor at a state hospital. Other records suggest she was a military veteran who served as a nurse in the reserves in France during World War I. After law school, she began practicing. Richmond city directories for 1924 and 1925 list her as an attorney operating out of an office on North 11th Street, near today’s Valentine Museum, but she does not appear in subsequent directories.

A century of progress

In 1920, when Ranson began her legal education, the census recorded six women practicing law in Virginia. A decade later, it was just 27. Women’s numbers in the profession didn’t hit triple digits in Virginia until the 1950 census, and it would not be until the 1980 census that the number jumped into the thousands. Whether enrollment by women at Richmond Law mirrors those trends is unclear but seems likely. Reliable data that records enrollment at Richmond Law by gender dates back only to 1992. By that point, women were regularly making up between 45% and 50% of graduating classes, surpassing the number of male graduates for the first time in 1996. In three of the last five years, women have accounted for 57% or more of the graduating class.

These figures track with national statistics. Women made up just over 55% of law school students nationally in 2020–21, and nearly five times as many law schools had female majorities as had male majorities, according to the American Bar Association. At five ABA-accredited law schools, the ratio in favor of women was two-to-one. When today’s students enroll, they are more likely than ever to encounter women as their professors; 55% of the current full-time faculty at Richmond Law are now women. They are also more likely to encounter women in administrative leadership. The latest data from Rosenblatt’s Deans Database at the Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson, Mississippi, show that 43% of the nation’s law school deans are women. That figure includes Richmond Law’s Wendy Perdue, the first woman to be dean of a law school in Virginia and the nation’s 11th-longest-serving law dean of any gender.

A new milestone for Richmond Law

As the school celebrates the 100th anniversary of its first female graduate, it is also celebrating another unique first. This one — again — involves a woman. A generous gift from the family of Nancy Litchfield Hicks, L’85, has established the school’s first professorship named in recognition of a woman. Its first appointee is Jessica Erickson, founding director of the Richmond Law and Business Forum, which helps students prepare for careers in business law.

I think she'd be very proud that there's now a professorship named after a woman and that the first one to hold the position is a woman professor who is highly regarded in the field.
Nancy Litchfield Hicks, L’85, front, with her family

“Nancy loved it there,” said Hal Hicks, who made the gift in memory of his late wife. “I think she’d be very proud that there’s now a professorship named after a woman and that the first one to hold the position is a woman professor who is highly regarded in the field.”

Hicks’ gift to establish this professorship is a continuation of the ongoing generosity he has displayed over the last several years. Following her passing in August 2020, Hal and the couple’s three sons — Josh, Billy, and Matt, ’15 — established the Nancy Litchfield Hicks (L’85) Memorial Scholarship.

Two years later, inspired by the strength Nancy displayed throughout a difficult illness, Hal sought to do something more to honor her and other “strong women” in his life — the Hicks professorship. “Nancy was a strong woman. Her daughter-in-law, Jess, is a strong woman. And, yes, her 2-year-old granddaughter, Zoey, is certainly turning out to be a strong young woman and the absolute queen of the family,” he said.

Erickson was named the Nancy Litchfield Hicks Professor of Law in June 2022. A prolific scholar on the Richmond Law faculty since 2007, she teaches and writes in the areas of corporate and securities litigation. The 2020 School of Law Distinguished Scholar, she has published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Vanderbilt Law Review, Notre Dame Law Review, Boston University Law Review, and Iowa Law Review, among other publications. (Read more about her here.)

“Women are such an important part of Richmond Law’s story, and we are thrilled that this new professorship serves as an enduring tribute to two important women in our history,” Perdue said. “An endowed professorship is one of the highest academic awards that the university can bestow on a faculty member. This professorship is such a fitting way to honor two exceptional women. I am grateful to the Hicks family for making it possible.”