AUWCL Celebrates 120 Years of Pioneering Women in Law
March is Women’s History Month, and with it comes an opportunity to pause and reflect on the impact of the founding of Washington College of Law by Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillett in 1898. These two remarkable women did more than just found one of the first coeducational law schools in the country. They founded an institution whose graduates have shaped major 20th century advances in gender equality and changed the face of the practice of law.
Our founding mothers did more than practice and teach law. They broke down barriers and advocated for the rights of women. For example, Ellen Spencer Mussey championed legislation (“The Mussey Act”) establishing a married woman’s right to own property. She also fought for laws that would provide pension from the government for mothers, and legislation allowing women to serve on juries.
Both Mussey and Gillett worked on subsequent married women's property legislation for the District of Colombia. Gillett was also one of the leaders in the National Women’s Party and both founders participated in the woman suffrage movement. In 1912, a group of Washington, D.C. suffragists endorsed either Mussey or Gillett as possible nominees to the Supreme Court bench following Justice Harlan’s death. In 1917, they founded the still thriving Women’s Bar Association of the District of Colombia in response to women's exclusion from the District of Columbia Bar Association.
Early WCL graduates also made history. Alice Paul (1922) was a pioneer of the women's movement who authored the original Equal Rights Amendment (while studying at WCL) and founded the National Women's Party. Paul also played a pivotal role in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin (1914), the first Native American woman graduate of WCL, was appointed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs by President Theodore Roosevelt where she was a prominent advocate of Native American Indian causes.
Several of our first alumnae broke down barriers in the judiciary—often the first women to hold their respective posts. Mary O’Toole (1914) was the first woman judge on the District of Columbia Municipal Court bench, Kathryn Sellars (1913) was the first woman to be appointed to the bench under federal authority, and Pearl McCall (JD 1918, LLM 1919) was the first woman Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia.
Fast-forward 100 years and the Washington College of Law is still a center for feminist legal scholarship, teaching, and activism. The law school houses the Women and the Law Program whose mission is to transform the training of lawyers so that they leave law school with an awareness of their power and obligation to remove the legal barriers to women's full participation in society. Our faculty research, write, and practice at the intersection of gender and law. Our campus is a vibrant, diverse community with several student organizations and a law journal exclusively dedicated to highlighting cutting edge issues in women’s and LGBTI rights.
To honor our legacy, the Women and the Law Program and the Pence Law Library curated a new “Making Women’s Legal History” exhibit for our ribbon cutting celebration. The display captures the enormous contributions of WCL’s founders, faculty, and students over the last 120 years to the integration of women in the practice of law and the advancement of women’s rights. We encourage all members of our community to view the display on our new campus—or to take a moment to explore the Washington College of Law Historical Collections.
For a more in-depth look at our early history check out “The Founding of the Washington College of Law: The First Law School Founded by Women, for Women” by Mary Clark, and “Banding Together: Reflections of the Role of the Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia and the Washington College of Law in Promoting Women's Rights” by Jamie Abrams and Daniela Kraiem.
Angie McCarthy '13 is a program coordinator for the Women and the Law Program at American University Washington College of Law. As a law student, Angie represented clients in the Women and the Law Clinic. She previously served a graduate peace fellow at Peace Brigades International, USA and worked with several women’s organizations, including the NGO Committee on the Status of Women at the United Nations and the New Women’s Movement in South Africa. Her current research interests include the intersections between environmental justice and reproductive justice, maternal mortality and post-abortion care, forced marriage, and the prevention of violence against Native American women.