Observance Honors Law School’s First Female Graduate

In 1871 Phoebe Couzins became the first woman to earn a degree from Washington University and the law school. Exactly 140 years later, on September 21, 2011, 140 women students, faculty, lawyers, judges, and alumnae gathered in the law school’s Crowder Courtyard to honor Couzins’ achievement and to celebrate the newly licensed women members of the Class of 2011.

The event, held in conjunction with International Women’s Day, was co-sponsored by the Women’s Law Caucus (WLC) and the Career Services Office (CSO), and funded in part through the Burson Fund.

Looking back, Washington University was among the first law schools in the country to admit women. Couzins, a woman suffrage activist from St. Louis, was admitted in 1868. That same year, Lemma Barkeloo, a New York native who had been turned down by every law school on the East Coast, was also admitted.  In fall 1869, they became the university’s first women students.

After only a few months of law school, Barkeloo passed the Missouri Bar in February 1870, becoming the state’s first—and the nation’s second—licensed female attorney.  Couzins completed the then two-year course of study and graduated in fall 1871, becoming Washington University’s first—and the nation’s third—woman law graduate.

“What makes this so amazing is that neither Couzins nor Barkeloo had ever met another woman law student, lawyer, judge, or faculty member,” says Karen Tokarz, the Charles Nagel Professor of Public Interest Law & Public Service and director of the Negotiation and Dispute Resolution Program. “Yet, each had an inner courage of conviction, a sense of equality and the determination to confront gender roles, go to college, and become a lawyer. They paved the way for major changes in legal education and the legal profession.”

As part of the recent law school celebration, “speed-mentoring” sessions were held to benefit the more than 70 women law students in attendance. The 70 mentors included more than 20 women faculty members and administrators, as well as judges and law clerks from the state and federal courts; lawyers from the offices of the U.S. Attorney, Lt. Governor of Missouri, Missouri Public Defender, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, and Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation; and lawyers from 35 St. Louis law firms and corporations.

“The mentoring sessions were a fantastic way to meet alumnae and celebrate this important milestone,” says Carolyn Rosenthal, second-year student and WLC President. “It says a lot about the Washington University School of Law that alumnae return to mentor current students. The mentors were generous with their advice and enthusiasm. The WLC is proud and honored to help bring the Washington University community together.”

Third-year student Nicole Lytle adds that the speed-mentoring sessions were inspirational and in keeping with the spirit of keeping the legacy of Couzins and Barkeloo alive.

 “It was amazing to be surrounded by the women who have blazed the trail before me,” Lytle says. “Seeing the fire in their eyes and feeling the passion they have for their practice motivates me to keep my head up and continue moving forward.”

Katherine Scannell, assistant dean of career services, says her office was pleased to be an integral part of this year's Women's Law Day and to host the "speed mentoring" aspect of the celebration: "The CSO is committed to finding innovative ways such as this to engage students, alumni, and the legal community as a whole, creating more mentoring and career development opportunities for Washington University Law students."

In preparation for a salute to Couzins and Barkeloo, Tokarz told participants: “Imagine their surprise and delight—if Couzins and Barkeloo were here today—to learn that the entering class at Washington University is 46 percent women. Imagine their surprise and delight to learn that the Washington University law faculty includes more than 30 women, that a chaired professorship has been established in their names, and that … the law school curriculum now includes Employment Discrimination, Family Law, Family Mediation, Feminist Legal Theory, Critical Jurisprudence, Reproductive Rights, Slavery, and Human Trafficking courses. And, that each year for the past 11 years, a team of law students has taught an undergraduate Women & the Law class here at the university."

About the Washington University Women’s Law Caucus
The Women’s Law Caucus, founded in 1972, strives to emphasize the development and achievements of women in the field of law, while fostering relationships among law students, faculty, and the community at large. Through public service projects and outreach to leading female lawyers and academics, members build foundations for their futures in law. The Women's Law Caucus is the largest student-run group at Washington University School of Law.

By Janet Edwards