Overcoming obstacles is in the Pfohl Kirby genetic code.

So, it’s no real surprise Ann Pfohl Kirby ’53 has never made a fuss about being one of the first female students at Harvard Law School. For the Illinois native, Harvard wasn’t daunting; it was merely a natural extension of her desire to become a lawyer and get the best education she could.

“I liked the challenge,” Kirby said, recalling how she had been studying law at New York University in 1949 when her college roommate told her Harvard had begun accepting women. She immediately applied and was admitted. “I was certainly prepared for the challenge,” added Kirby, who returned to campus last week for Celebration 70+, honoring the 70th anniversary of the first class of women graduates. “And I wanted to take it on.”

Taking things head on, it turns out, is something of a family tradition.

In the 1890s, Kirby’s great-grandmother purchased and ran her deceased husband’s business while raising five children. Some decades later, Kirby’s father, Louis Pfohl, was surprised when an audacious acquaintance named Pauline Mathis called his fiancée “a flirt” and perhaps not well-suited for a serious man “who wanted to get someplace in life.”

“I guess it made my father start to think about it,” said Kirby, “and he ended up marrying my mother, Pauline, instead.”

Kirby’s father worked as an architect in Chicago and pursued his law degree at night. In 1932 he moved his wife and young daughter Ann to Queens, New York, where he became a lead designer for the Otis Elevator Company in Manhattan. But he was restless. “He was an entrepreneur right from the start,” and eager to strike out on his own, said Kirby in a 2022 interview. Pfohl eventually opened his own industrial design factory in Flushing, with his wife as his assistant, later relocating the facility to Long Island City, where he became a plastics pioneer. Pfohl knew education had been a key to his success and urged his children to make the most of their time in class; Ann, like her siblings, listened. She was a strong student with good grades in high school and college, and even scored better than her father on an early practice LSAT. “He didn’t know whether to be upset or not, but mine was a lot higher than his,” said Kirby, adding how much she admired what her father had accomplished and that he “stood behind me, whatever I wanted to do.” That included her decision to go to Harvard.

Although Kirby was unbothered by being one of the first 14 women to attend Harvard Law School, she knew she stood out. As the only woman in one of her classes, the professor called on her every day, she remembered, not so much to test her but to simply hear what she had to say. “It intrigued them to call on a woman and see how she answered,” said Kirby, adding, “I relished it.”

Kirby’s fearlessness and determination have long been an inspiration to her own family, said Paula Kirby, her daughter, who graduated from Duke University and earned a master’s degree at Middlebury College and a business degree from INSEAD. Today, she is the managing director of the family business, Plaxall Inc., which has transitioned away from plastics to real estate development.

“She was never angry about being one of the only women in the room at times; she was really proud of it and enjoyed it,” said Paula Kirby. “And that gave all of us a really positive attitude about our approach to different educational options.” Four of Ann Kirby’s seven children became lawyers, and two attended Harvard Law School, as did her brother and a niece. Her eldest daughter became an anesthesiologist. And the educational drive has continued to the next generation — currently one granddaughter is at Harvard College and two are studying engineering at MIT.

“When you educate a woman, you educate a generation.”

—Ann Kirby ’53

Like many women of her era, Kirby struggled to find a job after she graduated. Undeterred, she headed to New York and began knocking on the doors of Wall Street firms. “They liked to interview me even though they had no intention of hiring me,” said Kirby. “They just wanted to see what I was like. You learned to go along with that and not get too excited that you weren’t going to be offered a job at the end of it.”

Eventually, she was hired by Sullivan & Cromwell, where she worked for about a year until she fell in love with William J. Kirby ’52, a fellow associate. The firm told them they couldn’t both work there after they were married, so she left law practice to raise their children, eventually joining the family business in Long Island City, working on contracts and leases and other legal matters.

Looking back on her life and career, Kirby has no regrets. She enjoyed her work and raising a family and continues to firmly believe in the power of education. In a 2018 interview she said, “When you educate a woman, you educate a generation.”

“Children often follow what their parents are doing, or they feel open to do it, in any case,” Kirby added recently. “And that was true in our family, too.”

When asked what she thinks of the fact that women now outnumber men at Harvard Law School, Kirby had a simple reply.

“I say more power to them.”