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Barbara Babcock and Clara Foltz: First Women

Barbara Babcock feels very close to Clara Foltz, though the two have never met. Foltz was famous in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a jury lawyer, public intellectual, leader of the women’s movement, inventor of the role of public defender, and legal reformer. But her story was all but lost until Babcock decided to make recovering it her life’s work. The result of that undertaking was published a few months ago in Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz (Stanford Press).

Yale Law School’s Class of 1963 had an unusually high number of women students—a whopping 13 out of 170, double the typical entrants per year. That jump was cause for (usually adverse) comment, according to Babcock, Judge John Crown Professor of Law, Emerita. Looking back, she says it was “almost comical” how upset some of the men were. Many thought it unfair that, at such a prestigious law school, women were “taking the places” of men who would, of course, need them more.

Babcock’s ambition to be a lawyer had started many years earlier, when her lawyer-father, “a real Arkansas storyteller,” would spin tales that usually concluded by the lawyer saving the day in heroic fashion. “I must have been six or seven when I started to say I wanted to be a lawyer too, and he liked that idea,” she says.

At Yale, however, she found little active encouragement of women’s aspirations, and only one woman professor, who was on leave while Babcock was there. She and the other women in her class formed what she calls “a little band,” supporting and influencing each other. Babcock excelled academically, winning the Harlan Fiske Stone Prize for best oral argument in the first year, serving on The Yale Law Journal, and graduating Order of the Coif. “I was a great law student,” she admits, ”mainly because I worked at it constantly.”

While times were changing and people were looking critically at the inequities of American life, sex discrimination did not yet have a name, and the women in the Class of 1963 scarcely realized that they were on the cusp of the second wave of the movement that had earlier resulted in women gaining the right to vote. Babcock rode this second wave to enter academia and in 1972 she joined the faculty of Stanford Law School, its first woman.

As she explains it, in the late sixties and coming off the civil rights movement, women became activists on their own behalf and flooded into law schools. Almost overnight, the percentage of women in typical law classes went from around 4 percent to 20 percent. These women were a new breed, she says, “unlike my generation, which largely sought to assimilate and not cause trouble. They wanted women professors and their own courses, as well as integration of their concerns into the whole curriculum.” Most law schools had been admitting select women for a hundred years, but few had any women on the faculty, and none had a substantial number.

Babcock had been a criminal defense attorney since graduation, including serving as the first director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. On the side, at the behest of the women law students and their male allies, she had taken up adjunct teaching of a new course titled Women and the Law at Yale and at Georgetown. In the early seventies, this made her desirable to a number of law faculties since she could fill both role model and curricular vacuums.

She chose Stanford partly because she had never lived in the West and says that when she got here, she could not believe anyone would want to live anywhere else. She did return to Washington in the Carter administration, to be the assistant attorney general for the civil division of the Department of Justice. Some years after resuming her teaching career, Babcock discovered that a woman had invented the idea of a public defender—Clara Foltz—and determined to write her biography. With Erika Wayne, deputy director of the law library and lecturer in law, she began teaching a course focusing on the biographies of pioneer women lawyers like Foltz, whose histories had largely been lost. The results of their labors, along with extensive bibliographic notes for the book, are at http://wlh.law.stanford.edu. In addition, many law students helped Babcock as research assistants in gathering material on Foltz, whose papers had been lost or destroyed.

And in the tradition of so many biographers, Babcock formed a special bond with her subject.

“She was never one to say ‘let’s wait to get the vote and then we’ll have some fun.’ She lived in the moment, and she never gave up—she just kept trying, no matter how great the obstacles.” Today when women have broken many of the barriers that Foltz faced in law, business, and government, there is still work to be done—particularly in enabling lawyers of both sexes to achieve a work-life balance. Clara Foltz as a single mother with five young children never quite achieved that goal. But Babcock is optimistic that her daughters in the law inspired by her example will yet do so. SL

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