Herma Hill Kay

First Women: Herma Hill Kay

Editor's Note: As part of Ms. JD's 5th Birthday celebration, we'll be looking back at our favorite posts over the years.

In February 2007, we were honored to receive this submission from Herma Hill Kay, professor and former dean of Berkeley Law/Boalt Hall.

I’m delighted to join this wonderfully creative new venture, and to be part of the “First Women Lawyers” series. I am particularly interested because my own current research project is devoted to telling the story of the entry of women professors into the previously all-male law school world during the twentieth century. I’ll say more about that at the end. First, I’ll briefly describe my own entry into law teaching. I got the idea to go to law school from a grammar school teacher in South Carolina. She taught a civics class, and one day she decided to have us debate the topic, “Resolved, The South Should Have Won the Civil War.” I was the only one in the class who volunteered to take the negative of that debate. After it was over, she said to me, “If you were my daughter, I’d send you to law school.” I ran home in great excitement, and said to my Mom, “I’m going to law school!” Mom, a third grade teacher, was not encouraging. “No, you won’t,” she said. “Girls can’t make a living as lawyers. You’ll be an elementary school teacher, just like me.” In 1946, the evidence was all on her side, but I didn’t give up the idea.

After I went to college and enrolled in elementary education courses (scheduled, as it happened, just before I was taking a course called An Introduction to Western Philosophy), I told Mom that I was not going to follow her career advice. In college, I got the encouragement I needed from the mother of a classmate, who was a Professor of Law at Baylor. Her name was Margaret Amsler, and (although I didn’t know it at the time), she was one of only three women teaching law at accredited schools in 1950. My big break came as I was a senior: I was lucky enough to be recommended by the Dean of Admissions at the SMU law school to be awarded a full scholarship to attend the University of Chicago Law School. Chicago was an intellectual revelation to me. I loved everything about the ideals of justice, fairness, and dignity that I studied there. With the help of my teachers, I also saw that those ideals are not always realized in practice. I decided to teach law, rather than become a practitioner, in order to devote my life’s work to law reform focused on helping the law realize its highest aspirations. One of my professors helped me get a clerkship with his good friend, Justice Roger Traynor of the California Supreme Court. It turned out to be the most wonderful year of my professional life. Traynor, in turn, was instrumental in getting me an interview with Berkeley for a faculty position. (I’m told the conversation went something like this: Boalt Faculty Appointments Chair: “Justice Traynor, we have a faculty position open. Do you have any good young men clerking for you who want to go into teaching?” Justice Traynor “No, but I have a young woman who is as good as any man I ever had.”) With that kind of endorsement, you would think I had the job in the bag. But I very nearly blew it. Without the help of Professor Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong, who was the first woman law professor in the country, and who had just retired from the Boalt faculty, I would have blown it. Here’s what happened: I went over to Berkeley for my day of interviews. In those days we didn’t have faculty job talks. Candidates went around from office to office, and went out to lunch with the faculty, and if you flunked lunch, that was the end of you, right? Well, I didn’t flunk lunch, but if it hadn’t been for Barbara’s swift intervention, I might have flunked the dress code. Remember, I was clerking for the prestigious California Supreme Court, located in the stylish city of San Francisco, and I was in the habit of wearing hats to work. At the time, by actual count, I had 28 hats. Since I wanted to make a good impression, I had chosen one of my special favorites to wear to the interviews. It was a sort of high top crushed velvet hat with a beautiful broad brim that came down nearly to my eyebrows: really, an elegant hat. At about 4:00 in the afternoon, just before I was to attend the faculty reception, I was in Barbara’s office having tea. She confronted me with some timely advice, based on irate telephone calls to her from several of her male colleagues. She said, “You have to take your hat off. The men want to see what you look like.” It was a very warm day in Berkeley, and I knew my hair would be damply plastered to my head if I removed my hat, and I would look just terrible. (It was the late 50s, remember? Things like that seemed to matter then.) I apologized. “Well, Professor Armstrong, I can’t take my hat off. My hair would just, . . . you know, I just can’t do it.” Barbara gave me an appraising look and then she said, “Very well. Perhaps when you come back for your second day of interviews you could wear a smaller hat.” “Oh, of course, Professor Armstrong,” I said, “but I didn’t know there was going to be a second day of interviews.” “There will be, now,” Barbara said firmly. So, there was a second day of interviews, I wore a small hat, I was hired, and without Barbara it wouldn’t have happened. Barbara did more than get me hired at Boalt. She mentored me from my first class (California Marital Property – which I had to learn from her, often minutes before I taught it to my students, since it was not part of Chicago’s common law curriculum) through my tenure review. Once I became Dean in 1992, I raised the money for a Distinguished Chair in her honor, which I now proudly hold. In conclusion, I want to tell you about the research project I’m working on now, which is devoted to the history of women law professors in the United States between 1900 and 2000. .Seventeen years ago, in 1989, I served a term as President of the Association of American Law Schools. In giving press interviews about that event, I was frequently asked whether I was the first woman to hold that office. The question was not unreasonable. At that point, few women had held positions of leadership in legal education. But the correct answer was “No.” In fact, I was the third woman to serve as President of the AALS. Soia Mentschikoff was the first. She preceded me by fifteen years, becoming President in 1974 when she was Dean of the University of Miami Law School. The second woman President was Professor Susan Westerberg Prager of UCLA, who later became Dean. She followed Soia twelve years later, holding the office in 1986. I served as a member of Susan’s Executive Committee and learned a great deal from her excellent example about how to do the job. Looking back, I think it was actually while I was patiently recounting the brief history of woman AALS presidents to reporters that I first began to wonder who the other early woman law professors had been. In my own mind, I thought of them as the women who had started teaching before I did, that is, before 1960. I began making a list of them. I had no problem identifying the first one, because she was my mentor and colleague, Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong. She began her teaching career as a joint lecturer in the Department of Economics and the School of Jurisprudence in 1919. She had retired from teaching by the time I joined the faculty, but she had kept her faculty office and was busily engaged in updating her two-volume work on California Family Law. Who, I wondered, were the women who began teaching law between Barbara and me? I had already met two of them: Margaret Amsler, who had assured me at the critical moment that it was perfectly o.k. for women to go to law school, and Soia Mentschikoff, who was a faculty member at the University of Chicago law school while I was a student there. I went first to the AALS Directory of Law Teachers, which began publication of its list of all teachers in member schools in 1922. I quickly learned that the first women to work at professional staff positions at law schools were law librarians. Since the training and career paths of law librarians are different from those of regular faculty, I refined my definition to include only women who were became full-time, tenure or tenure-track professors at law schools that were approved by the ABA and members of the AALS (ABA/AALS schools). Some of the women on my final list began their careers as law librarians. I date their appointments only from the time they left the librarian position to become full members of the regular faculty. After supplementing the data I found in the directory with questions to colleagues around the country, I have identified fourteen women, including Barbara, who fit that definition. These fourteen are the women that I have called “early women law professors.” Today, when I show this list to other law professors, both women and men of varying ages and in different locations, I find that very few people recognize all fourteen names. Here they are. How many do you recognize? 1. Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong, Berkeley, 1919. 2. Harriet Spiller Daggett, Louisiana State University, 1926. 3. Margaret Harris Amsler, Baylor, 1941. 4. Soia Mentschikoff, Harvard, 1947; Chicago, 1951. 5. Jeanette Ozanne Smith, University of Miami, 1949. 6. Clemence Myers Smith, Loyola, Los Angeles, 1952. 7. Ellen Ash Peters, Yale, 1956. 8. Janet Mary Riley, Loyola, New Orleans, 1956. 9. Helen Elsie Steinbinder, Georgetown, 1956. 10. Dorothy Wright Nelson, University of Southern California, 1957. 11. Joan M. Krauskopf, Ohio State University, 1958. 12. Maria Minnette Massey, University of Miami, 1958. 13. Marygold Melli, Wisconsin, 1959. 14. Miriam Theresa Rooney, Seton Hall, 1959. Unless you are very unusual (or unless you’ve read what I’ve already published about this project), I expect that you will agree with me that this is a story that’s rapidly disappearing. Almost everybody recognizes the name of Soia Mentschikoff. As my colleague, Frank Zimring, once said of her when he was on the Chicago faculty, “She’s the first woman everything.” Most of the other women on my list are remembered primarily by people at the schools where they taught. Two of them, Ellen Peters and Dorothy Nelson (who has already contributed a wonderful blog to the Ms. JD First Women Lawyers Series), left law teaching to become judges, and they are known today more widely from their time on the bench than from their earlier academic careers. The first part of the book will be about the fourteen early women law professors. The second part will be a more statistical treatment of women who entered law teaching between 1960 and 2000. In addition, I will discuss four sub-groups in more detail. These are (1) women of color; (2) lesbians; (3) women who became law school deans; and (4) women who left teaching to become judges. I have already published several law review articles based on the data I have collected, and I am well along with the stories of the early women. It is one of the most exciting projects I have ever undertaken. I hope you agree with me.



Professor Kay taught me Family Law at Boalt, and she was one of the best teachers there.  I also know that she inspired many women to choose law as a profession and was instrumental in opening up the law schools to women, especially at Boalt.  Just a few years after I finished, I was at an Alumni lunch in 1976 and the Boalt Student President (a woman) noted pointedly that the school didn’t look like we’d seen it - over 40% of the student body were women.  When I’d graduated in 1969, barely 15 or 20 of the class of 200 or so were women. 
Hoo-ray for Prof. Kay!!

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