The Human Rights Brief is a publication of The Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at Washington College of Law, American University. Please note that this is copyrighted material. Feel free to download and read articles from The Brief, but these materials may not be republished or reposted without the written permission of The Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.

WCL Commemorates Founders' Day

by Dean Claudio Grossman*

This year we celebrate the foundation of WCL a hundred years ago by two women, Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillett. We are the first law school in the country, and possibly the world, created by women. There is some magic in being the first. After all, our society promotes a very strong spirit of competition, and the need to excel. Being the first is as important in academia as it is in sports, in particular, when law school applications throughout the country are down. But the magic of being the first should not be allowed to completely capture our imagination. We are here to celebrate other important things, primarily the courage and commitment of our founders to create a society where there would be no artificial barriers between men and women.

Today it is easier to talk about equality between men and women, but to understand the intellectual environment in which our founders lived 100 years ago, one may look to Justice Bradley's concurring opinion in Bradwell v. Illinois. Written in 1893, the case concerns a woman who had passed the bar in Illinois but nevertheless was considered incompetent to practice law. In commenting on the situation, Justice Bradley wrote, "The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. . . Men are or should be the protectors of women and their defender. The natural and proper timidity and the delicacy which belong to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupation of civil life."

In that environment, our founders not only opted out of this protected and delicate life but created a law school which defied these traditional notions. A second value that we are here to celebrate today is the creation of opportunity. Allow me to tell you a story about our first commencement in May of 1899. The speaker was a Congressman from South Carolina who had practiced law in DC. During his speech, the Congressman made it plain that he was very doubtful about women's ability to practice law. In fact, he seemed to be completely against the advancement of women, and he declared pointedly that the old-time woman was good enough for him.

When the speaker had finished, Dean Mussey thanked him for his talk. "But it is very evident," she exclaimed, "that the honorable gentleman is badly in need of information as to why women are studying law. I never had any doubt that the old-time woman was good enough for any man. In fact, she was too good, and the present-day woman is not studying law to be good enough for some man but to have the opportunities that men have." The creation of opportunities for those who could not traditionally study law has been a constant in the history of WCL.

In addition, WCL was founded with an express recognition of the importance of examining the world and the role of lawyers in shaping and interpreting it. If one reads the literature concerning law schools, one finds tributes to the struggle for facilities and the constant improvement of scholarly standards by faculty who strive for excellence under the leadership of powerful deans. But what is missing from most of those histories is the link with the outside world, the fact that law schools are related to the life and dreams of real men and women. What has happened with this law school can be compared to what has happened with poetry. Poetry should be not only about the poet whose lover has put him or her in a permanent state of anguish, or about roses that fade because they are denied the water of love, but also about real-life experiences. You have probably recently seen Il Postino. The film is about life, the realities and expectations of all people. What makes the movie great is that it shows that poetry could be a central part of a person's everyday life. Poetry is about people who have fallen from scaffolds when working, who do not have money to pay their mortgage or who cannot find a job. That link to reality made a tremendous difference in the history of WCL. The founders wrote and fought for women's suffrage, women's estate rights, children's rights, education, and international understanding. For example, Dean Mussey was counsel to Sweden and Norway and the personal counsel and confidante of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.

That link with reality can be seen in the corridors of the law school itself. The testimonies of our founders show also a humane and personalized approach to students at the law school. Schools structure their own environment around the vision they have for society at large.

Today, we celebrate that the values of the founders live on at WCL. Our Women in the Law program asks important questions about the role of women in society. Our Clinics make a contribution to society by defending the disadvantaged while, at the same time, educating students. Our international program attracts over 150 lawyers from all over the world and prepares them for work in business, human rights, environmental law and international organizations. Our scholarship continues to defy barriers and sets out to break down man-made distinctions.

We are not here to celebrate a past that is stagnant. One hundred years ago WCL, like all other schools, did not admit black Americans. We cannot celebrate the founders without recognizing the limits placed upon them by the social and legal structure of their time. The founders could not fully attain equality and diversity. Our mission is to build on the opportunity that the founders established. Nothing could have been more important to the founders than to know that their message was so powerful that it continues to live. With the contribution of the entire WCL community, I am confident that we will continue to represent the values of human dignity for which they stood.

* Remarks by Dean Grossman at Founders' Day Reception, April 8, 1996.

© Copyright 1996 The Human Rights Brief

Next Article
Previous Article
Return to this issue's Table of Contents
Return to The Human Rights Brief Home Page