History of the WLA
1950. ©Fay Foto Service, Harvard Law School Library.
Nine women of the Class of 1953, the first female students to graduate from HLS, facing Vice Dean Livingston Hall.
Women did not gain access to a Harvard Law education until 1950, when Harvard first admitted female students to its entering law school class. These intrepid leaders, comprised of eleven women receiving a J.D. and two L.L.M. degree students, walked the stage in 1953 as trailblazers for many women to come. When they graduated, there were no women on the faculty, and little assistance was offered in support of their success.
In the fall of 1969, three remarkable female students, including the noted advocate Janet Benshoof, founded the Harvard Women’s Law Association in response to prevailing sexism on campus. These women set out to improve gender equality on campus in a number of different areas, including increasing the number of female faculty members. Though the very first woman to teach a course at Harvard Law was the Uniform Commercial Code expert Soia Mentschikoff, who taught from 1947-1951 (before there were even female students at the law school), the Women’s Law Association helped lead the charge to diversify the faculty. One of the founders’ early successes was bringing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a professor at Rutgers University, to Harvard Law to teach a course.
From its founding, the WLA sought to improve the campus experience. WLA members advocated for better treatment of women in the classroom, including successfully convincing Harvard Law faculty to address women students as “Ms.” The WLA also advocated for increasing the number of female law students – when the organization was founded, women made up only ten percent of the class. The WLA therefore engaged in steadfast recruitment efforts, which succeeded in part by pooling recruitment efforts with other groups on campus, such as the black, Latino, and Native American student organizations. The WLA also lobbied the law school career placement office to ban law firms from campus that asked female applicants about their use of birth control.
Celebration 25 and Beyond
In 1978, 25 years after the first women graduated from Harvard Law School, twenty-one student leaders of the WLA decided to celebrate the anniversary of the first class of women law students with an event called “Celebration 25.” This event focused on reflection and scholarship, which in turn helped spawn the creation of Harvard’s Women’s Law Journal (now the Journal of Law & Gender). This initial event launched what would become a grand tradition, with the law school having most recently enjoyed Celebration 65 in Fall 2018.
Recent WLA Presidents
Recent Presidents of the Women’s Law Association include:
2021-22 Ellen Kim
2020-21 Aanchal Chugh
2019-20 Nicole Williamson
2018-19 Isabel Finley
2017-18 Paavani Garg
2016-17 Natalie Vernon
2015-16 Kenyon Colli
2014-15 Julie Siegel
2013-14 Nitzan Weizmann
2012-13 Stephanie Davidson
2011-12 Amy Sennett
2010-11 Cari Simon
2009-10 Taylor Kline
Past Presidents: please contact the WLA should you wish to be included in this list.