It was 1971. Women made up about 13 percent of the Stanford Law School student body. The faculty was all male, as was the senior administration. And according to a statement signed by a group of 1L women that year, lack of diversity wasn’t the only reason they felt marginalized. They wrote that the attitudes of male students and faculty members also reflected “the bastard status” of women law students.
As a result of what its founders perceived to be an inhospitable environment, and in an effort to “give effect to the aims of women at the law school,” Women of Stanford Law was born. The group focused on recruiting more women students, preventing discrimination in hiring, and getting a woman on the faculty. And in the fifty years since its founding, WSL, as it is now known, has continued to advocate for gender equity and awareness, while providing a critical support network for the generations of women who have followed.
For Tricia Berke Vinson, JD ’76 (BA ’71, MA ’72), WSL was “a home, a safe harbor, in a place that wasn’t very friendly or welcoming.” When she entered in 1973, Vinson recalls that almost 20 percent of the class were women. “The law school was a very macho environment. The opening line in our property book was something like, ‘The land, like a woman, longs to be possessed,’” says Vinson, formerly director and now of counsel to the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County’s Health Consumer Center. “And even though people were helpful, there was a lot of competitiveness.” WSL, in contrast, was a very supportive group. “We took care of each other.”
Barbara Babcock, who was appointed in 1972 as Stanford Law’s first female member of the tenured-line faculty, quickly became an important part of WSL and expanded the school’s offerings to include classes and events of particular interest to women. Vinson worked with Babcock to organize the National Conference of Women, hosted by Stanford in 1975, and also participated in a sexual discrimination externship at Equal Rights Advocates, under Babcock’s supervision. “Before the externship, I felt estranged; afterwards I had purpose,” says Vinson.
By 1983, admission of women to SLS had grown to about 36 percent. And a year or two later, women comprised half the class. “That was momentous to many of us, and I thought at the time that the class would be 50-50 from then on,” says Jeanne Merino, JD ’86, lecturer in residence and recently retired director of the First Year Legal Research and Writing Program. “But alas, it was years before that mark was reached again.”
One of WSL’s most active projects during Merino’s tenure, she says, was the Feminist Discussion Group. “We read, discussed, and debated feminist theory, novels, and poetry. But mostly the group was an opportunity to meet outside of the law school and take time off from the pressure of the in-class environment.”
For Dahlia Lithwick, JD ’96, WSL was crucial to her law school experience and, ultimately, to her career.
“WSL was one of the things that absolutely saved me as a 1L, when I was pecking around the law school trying to figure out where I might find a home for my worries and my sense that I maybe just didn’t belong,” says Lithwick, now a contributing editor at Newsweek and senior editor at Slate.
Importantly, WSL introduced Lithwick to Babcock and Deborah Rhode, who joined the faculty in 1979 and became the second tenured woman—and an integral part of WSL. “They became lifetime mentors. And as I struggled with early iterations of questions I would sit with for my whole professional life, from pay inequality to what would be #MeToo, so many seeds were planted at WSL speeches or panels. For me, at least, WSL was a cross between a homecoming and a revelation, which is exactly what every law student should have.”
Today, SLS consistently enrolls a student body that is about 50 percent women and has a full-time faculty that is more than 30 percent women.
And while WSL is still actively engaged in recruiting women students, it is even more focused on supporting those who have matriculated. Central to this mission is WSL’s mentorship program.
“Every 1L woman is paired with a 2L mentor, and transfer students are paired with 3L mentors,” explains current WSL co-president Claire Fieldman, JD ’22. “This year, we had nearly 100 percent participation.” Indeed, WSL co-president Olivia Malone, JD ’22, says, “As a 1L, I really leaned on my 2L mentor, especially during Fall Quarter. I could ask her anything, even the stupid questions.”
Also critical are the guides that WSL has compiled and distributes to its members. These include information for law firm recruiting (including on discrimination issues), Stanford Law Review, clerkships, public interest fellowships, 1L exams, and even for navigating Palo Alto.
The group continues to organize topical panels and, before the pandemic, hosted a dinner each Spring featuring a prominent woman lawyer. “This year, we hope to have a virtual celebration, to mark our 50th anniversary,” says Malone.
Sadly, the event will be missing its matriarchs: Professors Babcock and Rhode both passed away over the last year. “This has been a very hard time for the WSL community,” says Fieldman about their loss.
Nonetheless, there is much to celebrate. WSL has achieved many of its founders’ goals, and then some.