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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Harvard Law School (HLS) celebrated its fiftieth year of women graduates with the largest alumni event in its history this weekend, just one month after Elena Kagan was appointed the school’s first female dean.
Former Attorney General Janet Reno and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were two of the largest draws at the three-day-long celebration. Over 250 came to hear the two share stories of juggling work, family and a good conscience in a cutthroat profession.
Several of the original 13 women in the 500-person law school class of 1953 were present, along with over 900 other alums, who descended on the law school campus for the weekend of panels, luncheons and dinners in the school’s Holmes courtyard.
Reno, who graduated from HLS in 1963, addressed the crowd on Friday evening over steak dinners, and talked about how she managed to maintain the dedication to social service instilled in her by her mother, a “crusading newspaper writer” in Miami, Fla.
“The first thing we have got to do is listen to those who are hurt,” Reno said, after discussing her contributions to the child support enforcement system in Miami. “To them, the law seems alien and it seems little more than the paper it is written on.”
She said that she would like to see a greater dedication to honesty in the criminal justice system and a move toward rehabilitation over punishment.
Without these changes, she warned, “the feeling about lawyers will be worse.”
Calling Harvard a “goldmine of knowledge,” she also encouraged the University to have greater interaction between its parts.
But Reno received the loudest applause when she addressed the problems in reconciling national security and civil liberties.
“Don’t put somebody in the military brig without charging them,” Reno said.
Though Reno’s talk did not focus on the state of women in the law, she touched on the role gender played in her career.
“I put into effect a child support system that brought me notoriety amongst the men and praise amongst the women,” she said.
She also said that she hoped that more people would “structure their workplaces so that both parents can have quality time with their children.”
Saturday’s luncheon panel, featuring three families of HLS graduates, was devoted to that final question—how does a woman maintain a healthy family life, while working long hours?
Ginsburg, who attended the first two years of law school at Harvard, offered her insights, accompanied onstage by her husband Martin and their daughter Jane, who graduated from HLS in 1980.
“In my undergraduate years, the one thing that it wouldn’t do for a girl was to have a brain,” Ginsburg said. “At HLS it was okay to like learning and like studying and to like classes, which I did.”
She said that having a daughter while she was attending law school actually helped her cope with the “oppressive aspect” of the competitive environment.
“Every time I want relief, well there was my child,” she recalled.
But the running joke of the panel was her daughter and husband’s criticisms of her cooking.
According to her husband, who is a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and graduated from HLS in 1958, their household was one where “father did the cooking and mother did the thinking.”
Ginsburg who actually transferred to Columbia Law School for her third year in 1959, spoke fondly of her days at Harvard and Columbia.
The celebration participants also welcomed the new dean Kagan, who addressed the group over breakfast on Saturday morning.
“She has served ably, and she has been a respected teacher and scholar and I am very excited about prospect of [her] leadership,” said co-moderator of Saturday’s luncheon, former ambassador and HLS grad Philip Lader.
Reno added that the dean during her tenure, Erwin Griswold—whom she called, “a curmudgeon, but a curgmudeon who cared a great deal about all of us”— would “take great joy” in seeing Kagan rise to the position.
U.S. District Court Judge Rya W. Zobel, who graduated with 18 other women in 1956, said that as a woman in a pre-feminist era, she did not think too much about the prejudices against her.
“We felt much less discriminated against by the law school than the women did later on,” Zobel said. “But that’s because we weren’t terribly sensitive to it.”
She added that the biggest problems she faced were not at HLS, but when she left and sought work.
“That’s when we hit the wall,” she said, saying that most firms did not want to hire women.
The recipient of the Celebration 50 honorary award was Charlotte Armstrong, who was one of the original members of the class of 1953, in recognition of her contributions both professionally and personally.
Organizers said they hoped to stage the event while the members of the law school class of 1953 were still able and willing to come.
“You know, fifty is an important number, and we thought ‘Most of them are still alive, we should do something while they are still with us,’” said Michael Smith, who was on the executive committee organizing the event.
He added that given the possible changes in the law school in upcoming years—including the possibility of moving to Allston—interest among alums was high. “The timing could not have been more perfect,” he said.
Harvard was not the first top law school to admit women. While women did not enroll at HLS until 1950, females had been attending Yale and Columbia in small numbers since before 1920.
—Staff writer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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