Although today the student population at the law school is more than 50 percent female, it was not until 1898 that a woman was admitted. Women's absence was more a reflection of the status of women during the Victorian era.
Katherine G. Stoneman, a suffragist and teacher at the State Normal School, was the law school's first female student. Stoneman graduated in 1898, after she had passed the state bar and started practicing.
To celebrate the centennial of her Stoneman's graduation, $1 million was raised to endow visiting professorship. An annual award was established to honor members of the legal profession who embodied the spirit of the law school's first female student.
In 1994, the Women's Law Caucus sponsored the first Kate Stoneman Day, which celebrated the achievements of two members of the school community: Helen M. Pratt (class of 1928), who had practiced law for 64 years in Livingston County; and Professor Bernard E. Harvith, an early supporter of the interests of women student and the initiator of the course, "Women and the Law" in the late 1960s.
The awardees in 1995 were Professor Katheryn Katz and Jeanine Ferris Pirro, class of 1975, the first female to serve as Westchester County district attorney.
Frances A. Van Santford of Albany was the second woman to graduate in 1900, and Mabel J. Wood of Herkimer became the third, in 1903. Two women enrolled with the class of 1905, Claire Sinclair of Bath and Harriette Wood of Poughkeepsie, Ethel K. Betts of Troy (class of 1907) and Maxine Driefkoff of Albany (class of 1909) were unusual in that they had attended college, at Smith in Northampton and the University of Berlin, respectively.
Two years after graduation, Ruth M. Miner, class of 1920, an indefatigable civic-minded attorney, became the first counsel for the Albany Legal Aid Society, and in that role assisted poor women and children. Later she served in Albany as executive deputy secretary of state (1943-54) and as a trustee of the law school.
Other women were enrolled in nearly every subsequent class during Dean J. Newton Fiero's administration (1895-1924). Several women distinguished themselves academically, such as Hazel M. Cole, class of 1911, and Kathryn H. Starbuck, who walked off with three of the eleven prizes awarded to the class of 1914.
Particularly during World War I, they made up a significant percentage of the student body. Positions of leadership in student associations during the early 20th century, however, were restricted to male members of the class, although women were often awarded the sinecure of honorary president. Only in 1924 was Gladys. W. Hutchinson elected the bona fide president of the freshman class, suggesting a growing acceptance of women at the school.
With male students enlisting in the armed forces during World War I, the proportion of women at the school grew significantly after 1917. Women involved in the suffragist movement in New York State rejoiced in 1920 at the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and some may have been encouraged to become lawyers to defend or extend women's rights.
In 1924-25, J. Newton Fiero's last year as dean, 23 women attended the law school. But precisely when the school moved its operations from The Factory to the imposing building on New Scotland Avenue, women vanished from the classrooms.
This was in 1929, on the watch of Dean Harold D. Alexander. There is no explicit reference in the school bulletins to a policy excluding women. But a policy statement mentioning the admission of females that had regularly been a part of the bulletins since Kate Stoneman's admission in 1896 disappeared.
It cannot be that women were banished from the school for lack of achievement; many had distinguished themselves academically in the few years that they had attended during Alexander's tenure.
For example, Margaret Smith of Fort Plain was one of seven honor students in the 1925 class and Ruth Marie White of Hoosick, who was awarded a scholarship, earned one of the best overall scores in the 1927 class.
Gladys W. Hutchinson of Albany, class of 1926, was also a star student. After practicing law for a few years in New York City, Hutchinson married, moved to Tennessee, and went on to become a prominent author of ghost stories.
One of the last women to attend the law school before it shunned women temporarily was Helen M. Pratt. She was only 18 when she entered the law school in 1924. After graduation, she became a partner with her father, Robert Pratt, in Dansville, New York, where she served her community for the next 64 years. Pratt became a county judge and was called the "most successful lawyer in Livingston County," according to an Albany Law School Magazine article.
There is evidence of an unwritten policy denying women entrance to the law school in the 1930s and early 1940s. In 1937, Grace Kennedy, a graduate of the College of Saint Rose in Albany, applied for admission. She was turned away despite the fact that she had met all the educational requirements and had stellar grades.
"I was told ... that it would be a waste of time to fill out the application, as they didn't accept women students," Kennedy told a reporter in 1998. "I was told that the professors wouldn't know what to do with me and that I'd be a disruption to the classes and that there wasn't a ladies room."
Kennedy eventually earned her law degree from Fordham Law School. In this unwritten policy of exclusion, Albany Law School wasn't unusual for the times.
In 1943 with the school's male population depleted by wartime Selective Service, women were admitted again. In the school bulletin of that year, prospective students are referred to as "men and women."
Julia Perkins, the first woman to take advantage of the new admissions policy, graduated with the class of 1945. Five of the 28 students making up the class of 1946 were women. But once enrollment picked up after the war, women aspiring to become lawyers became casualties of the Rosie-the-Riveter syndrome.
A few women in the post-war years bucked convention. The mostly male environment, however, could bear down upon them. Winfred Widmer, class of 1954, was asked by the dean, who taught criminal law, to skip class on the day when sex crimes would be covered so that he could tell the men his favorite jokes. When the administration reminded students to wear suits and ties to class, she donned a tie with her conservative gray suit, a fitting prank for the sole female in her graduating class.
Some members of the faculty, including Dean Andrew. V. Clements, could be sympathetic. Clements wrote Widmer a check for $200, so that she could leave here part-time job long enough to study for the bar exam.
Not surprisingly, there was a dearth of women students at the law school in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when women's place was often deemed to be in the home or behind a typewriter, not in the courtroom. Of the handful of women that entered as first-year students, perhaps one or two completed the program yearly. The 1960 class, which began with five women, graduated one.
Beverly Cipollo Tobin, family court judge of Albany County, was the only woman to graduate with the 1962 class.
Margaret R. Powers, the sole woman to graduate in 1963, served on the editorial board of the Albany Law Review, won the lion's share of academic prizes at commencement and became the school's first female valedictorian.
While there were few female students, women did maintain a visible presence on campus in this period.
Many male law students were married, and in 1957
a Student Wives Association was formed. That year, there were 80 members in the group, which sponsored guest speakers, organized school parties and held fashion shows. There was some talk of including husbands in the club, which lasted through the early 1970s.
Women were hired as staff for the first time during and after World War II. In 1942-43, Katharine Jones Strough, from Texas, was appointed secretary to the faculty. Andrew V. Clements promoted here to registrar when he became dean two years later. She worked at the law school for 20 years. Helen T. Wilkinson, brought in as secretary to the dean in 1954, replaced Strough and stayed for 30 years. Throughout this period of miniscule administration, the registrar had responsibility for a myriad of administrative functions.
The first female on the faculty was Mary Elizabeth Cox of Albany, class of 1946. In 1947, she became librarian and taught the course on legal bibliography. In 1950, she married but kept her job and was given two additional courses to teach. For many years afterward, the part-time position of library was held by women, including Joan Lawton Zweifel and Catherine Nugent Haiss of Troy, both members of the class of 1956.
In 1974, Sandra M. Stevenson joined the faculty, and with the appointment the following year of Katheryn D. Katz, the law school had two female professors, both recent graduates. The year prior to Katz and Margrethe R. Powers, class of 1963, had founded the first upstate New York law firm headed by women.
Johnna G. Torsone, chief human resources officer of Pitney Bowes, graduated in the top 5 percent of the 1975 class and was managing director of the Albany Law Review. Torsone, who practiced employment and labor law for 14 years before joining the document,
packaging and mailing giant, has overall responsibility for executive development and succession planning, executive compensation, benefits planning and administration, diversity, employee relations and employment law for the company, which has 36,000 employees worldwide.
In 1986, second-year student Patricia E. Salkin organized a program that instructed law students in conflict resolution for the Albany Dispute Mediation Program. About 30 students volunteered their services at Albany County Family Court, which received client referrals from town courts and the state attorney general's office.
In the mid-1980s, the gender gap was also slowly closing in the faculty, as Nancy M. Maurer, Mary Helen Moses, Dale Moore and Patricia J. Youngblood joined professors Stevenson and Katz.
An important first for women at the law school occurred in
when Judge Judith S. Kaye of the Court of Appeals delivered the commencement address.
Women continue to play a vital role at the law school, either through their service following graduations or as faculty members.