Fifty years after the first women graduated from Harvard Law School, alumnae come together to look back at the progress and ahead to the possibilities.

Janet Reno ’63 said she felt “the power and the purpose and the joy” of Celebration 50. But she and others who attended the event were also determined to do more than celebrate.

During the first weekend in May, nearly 800 alumnae joined the former U.S. attorney general to mark the 50th anniversary of the first class of women to graduate from HLS. Participants included a Supreme Court justice and a former head of state, former and current congresswomen, members of the first class, founders of public interest organizations and seasoned attorneys of all stripes, as well as students and faculty, such as Professor Elena Kagan ’86, soon to be the next dean of Harvard Law School and first woman to head the school. They examined the state of the legal profession and the state of HLS, recalled the history of women’s achievements and planned ways to further women’s gains. And they celebrated the many trailblazers the institution has produced.

Mary Robinson  speaking at podium

Mary Robinson LL.M. ’68, former president of Ireland and former U.N. high commissioner for human rights

Mary Robinson LL.M. ’68, former president of Ireland and former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, set the tone by congratulating HLS on the appointment of Kagan and challenging the institution to provide leadership on issues involving women and the legal profession, economic development and human rights. “This is a weekend that Harvard Law School needs,” she said, “and I hope Harvard Law School will listen carefully and be changed.” She urged audience members to take hold of these issues, “and don’t let go.”

The message reverberated throughout the program in plenary meetings and 17 breakout sessions in which topics ranged from the importance of the public and private sectors in an increasingly globalized world, to women in the criminal justice system, to bankruptcy law and economic rights. California Sen. Sheila Kuehl ‘ 78, who organized the inaugural event as a student, was honored “as the founding mother of the celebrations.” She said, “At first, since women were only tolerated at the school, we thought we’d call it Toleration 25.” Other speakers included Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan ’81 and Pamela Thomas-Graham ’88 (’89), president and CEO of CNBC. Dean-designate Kagan welcomed alumnae and their questions and suggestions, and promised that the school would not become complacent.

In a panel on international leadership, Rita Hauser ’58 said that, at first, many law firms would not hire her because they could not see a woman in international practice. She eventually became managing partner at a large firm and ran its international department. “Today the opportunities are legion,” she said, while urging all young lawyers to spend some time working abroad. “I don’t think there are any more restrictions at all on women who wish to practice in this arena.”

Cheryl Williamson Gray ’82, director of the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction and Economic Management division for Europe and central Asia, said managing an international career when you have children is not easy: “Somehow you do it. I’m not sure exactly how–a lot of humor, a lot of flexibility. And a good nanny probably helps too.”

Alice Young ‘ 74, partner at Kaye Scholer in New York City, who has worked nearly 30 years in corporate practice specializing in Asia, emphasized the value of comparative perspective for what it teaches us about ourselves. “To be able to see how you negotiate in another culture and recognize some of the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own culture is an important lesson for us as Americans to learn,” she said.

When Reno addressed the crowd Friday evening, she urged the school and its graduates to look to what needs to be done over the next 50 years, including improving access to justice for all. She urged lawyers to listen to those to whom the law seems alien. “If we don’t like what we see in this country,” she said, “we can’t stand silently by.”

The weekend also was dedicated to listening to the challenges and accomplishments of early graduates. Judith Richards Hope ’64, partner at Paul Hastings in Washington, D.C., described how much all alumnae owe “to the courage and the tenacity and the thick skins and the determination of the first class of women.” She said, “These women were on probation for all the rest of us who followed.”

Hope detailed for the audience the difficulties faced by early women students, from the paucity of bathrooms to the indignities of Ladies’ Day, which ended in the late ’60s when the ladies under interrogation opened up their briefcases and threw lingerie at their male classmates.

Charlotte Armstrong '53

Charlotte Armstrong ’53 accepts a Celebration 50 award from Judith Richards Hope ’64.

Hope presented the Celebration 50 award to a member of that first class, Charlotte Armstrong ’53, now a consultant who specializes in executive compensation.

Armstrong said she and her classmates hadn’t thought of themselves as pioneers. And in retrospect, she says, what was most discouraging about their experience–more than their small numbers or lack of mentors, advisers or role models–were the low expectations from people at the school. Armstrong said she spoke on behalf of her female classmates (13, including two LL.M.s) when she said, “I think we have disproved their lack of faith.”

During a panel discussion, “Advice from Famous Folk,” alumnae reflected on the start of their careers and their sometimes difficult experience at Harvard Law School.

Ruth Abrams ’56, a retired justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, said when she was a student, “you felt isolated, but you didn’t have the rage.” That came later, after she graduated and saw how unwelcoming the bar was. Today things are looking up, she said, but “women have to persevere and push to get the kind of life and profession they want.”

Nadine Strossen ‘ 75, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, believes “what every law school should inspire in every student is [a] sense of justice,” she said. “You owe it to yourself and to your community to take this wonderful privilege–especially Harvard Law School, which opens so many doors–and use it to implement whatever your view of the public good is, full time or as a volunteer.”

During the panel, Hope mentioned that her children have only recently stopped being mad at her for working so hard while they were growing up. Several of the participants brought their children to the event, and balancing work and family in the legal profession was on people’s minds and on the agenda. “We wanted to speak to people and have people speak to each other about the profound connection between their professional lives and their family lives, whether that includes children or parents, or community relations,” said Elizabeth Stong ’82, chairwoman of the Celebration 50 organizing committee and partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York City.

During a luncheon on Saturday, two law school families reflected on the topic. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’56-’58 shared the podium with her husband, Martin Ginsburg ’58, and their daughter, Jane Ginsburg ’80. Rep. William Jefferson ‘ 72 was surrounded by three of his five daughters: Jamila ’97, Jalila ’01 and Jelani ’04.

Justice Ginsburg, who spent two years at HLS but received her law degree from Columbia, said that caring for her young daughter when she was in law school actually helped relieve the pressure. “Each part of one’s life needs respite from the other,” she said.

Group of women holding their hands up to the sky.

Credit: Justin Knight Celebration 50 participants cheer the festivities.

Jane Ginsburg, professor at Columbia Law School, said she is lucky that her husband, George Spera ’80, is able to spend time caring for their children, but too many women in the legal profession have eschewed having children or waited a long time to do so because they feared discrimination at work. “It will be very important for that not to be an issue anymore, as much for men as for women,” she said.

Justice Ginsburg said the world has changed a lot since she graduated from law school. “In the not-so-good old days, I would often say something at a meeting, and then a guy would say the same thing, and about five minutes later people would say, ‘That’s a good idea.’ People were not hearing a woman’s voice. Now they do.”

Alumnae came away from the weekend feeling that their voices were heard.

Verna Myers ’85, who runs her own diversity management consulting business in the Boston area, said, “I love the fact that the law school has started to recognize women and people of color as assets.” In the past, the only time she’d come back to HLS was for the Celebration of Black Alumni in September 2000. Though she once had negative feelings about the school, Celebration 50 has made her want to renew her affiliation.

They also came away with a sense of renewed purpose. Jessica Neuwirth ’85, founder of Equality Now in New York City, has attended all the women’s celebrations since she graduated. “They’ve all been high-energy, but this one is even higher energy,” she said. “There’s a sense of urgency about lots of pressing issues of concern to women and a sense of commitment to try to do something and a sense of the need to try to be practical and strategic, which is all very good.”

There was also joy. Judge Sondra Miller, a graduate of the first class of women, said, “It was just phenomenal for me to see all of the talented, successful young women who are here at the law school today and looking forward to a future with limitless expectations.”