Law School women blazed new trails despite discrimination
In the 126 years since Mary Kennedy Brown became Cornell Law School’s first woman lawyer, the school’s women graduates have gone on to become trailblazers in law, business and education, despite persistent discrimination. Here is a look at a few notable women graduates and their many accomplishments.
Jane Foster, LL.B. 1918
Jane Foster served as an editor of the Cornell Law Quarterly and graduated in the top 10% of her class. But no law firm would hire her as a lawyer. The only offer she received upon graduation was a job as a legal assistant with the New York City firm Davies, Auerbach and Cornell. She worked there from 1918 to 1929, developing expertise in restructuring companies.
When she left the firm, Dean Charles Burdick offered to help her find a job as a lawyer, but to no avail. One response, from a prominent New York City firm, was typical: “Here in this office we have steadfastly refused to take women on our legal staff, and I know that we will continue to adhere to that policy.”
Foster dropped out of law and put her business and financial skills to work, investing in companies such as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, which would eventually become IBM. She continued to live in Brooklyn Heights, New York, and focused on the affairs of her friends, community, Cornell Law School and her own growing financial interests. In the 1950s, she returned to her hometown, Portsmouth, Ohio, to care for her ailing mother. She lived there until her death in 1993.
Foster is among the Law School’s greatest benefactors. An addition to Myron Taylor Hall, a scholarship and an endowed professorship are all named in her honor.
At the dedication of the Jane Foster addition in 1989, then-Dean Russell K. Osgood said the space “… will remind us that our society, and our legal system, are not built and should not operate to confirm the powerful in their privileges, but to empower all people, to unlock the potential in the mass of us, to do something and to do it well.”
Mary Donlon, LL.B. 1920
Mary Donlon was the first woman editor in chief of a law review in the U.S., decades ahead of any other. And she was the first woman to become a partner at a Wall Street law firm, Burke & Burke, in 1928. Donlon’s credo was that every successful woman should provide “a strong pair of shoulders” on which other women could climb.
A native of Utica, New York, she worked at Burke & Burke for almost 25 years and was the only woman attorney at the firm during that period. She was the first woman chosen to be on the Cornell University Board of Trustees’ Executive Committee and served for a time as its vice chair; she was elected trustee in 1937 and was re-elected several times, serving until 1966. Donlon also played an active role in the Republican Party of New York state, serving as a delegate to the national party convention numerous times and helping to draft a national party platform.
Because of her Republican Party connections and role as a Cornell trustee, Donlon was instrumental in establishing Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Donlon’s friend Irving M. Ives, at that time the majority leader in the New York State Assembly, had the idea of starting such a school at Cornell. Donlon acted as an intermediary between Ives and then-Cornell President Edmund Ezra Day and helped Ives convince members of the board to establish the ILR School.
In 1944 Gov. Thomas E. Dewey appointed Donlon chair of the New York State Industrial Board, and a year later chair of the New York State Workmen’s Compensation Board, which she served until 1955. Dewey would later proclaim that “few women, and, indeed, few men, have done as much for government as Mary Donlon.”
Connie Cook ’41, J.D. ’43
As one of only three women in the New York State Assembly from 1962 to 1974, Connie Cook led extraordinary efforts to create change within a male-dominated government. As a Republican assemblywoman for New York’s 125th district, she wrote legislation in 1970 that decriminalized abortion in New York state, which paved the way for Roe v. Wade in 1973.
This was the first of multiple trailblazing campaigns for public office that Cook undertook over the course of her career. In 1974 she became the first woman in her district to run for U.S. Congress. Though she lost that campaign, and a second in 1980, her efforts set a powerful precedent.
Cook also challenged the status quo as a litigator. In 1976 she represented the Rev. Betty Bone Schiess, one of the first female Episcopal priests in the United States. When the Central New York diocese refused Schiess a license, Cook sued the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission ruled in Schiess’s favor, compelling the Episcopal Church of the United States to allow the ordination of female priests nationwide.
That year, Cook also became the first female vice president of Cornell; she presided over land grant affairs, 1976-1980. In 1987, she joined the Ithaca firm of True, Walsh, and Miller, where she worked until her retirement in 1992.
In 2015, Ithaca-based filmmaker Sue Perlgut released “Connie Cook: A Documentary,” a 55-minute film that celebrates Cook as “a woman ahead of her time.”
Elizabeth Storey Landis, LL.B. ’48
Elizabeth Storey Landis was the fourth editor in chief of a law school law review (Doris Banta Pree, J.D. ’46, was the third and Jean Ripton Peterson, J.D. ’49, the fifth) but still faced a problem many women law school graduates encountered even in the 1940s: she couldn’t find a job.
Instead, Landis earned a doctorate in law from the Université de Lyon, France, and began work on a project to codify the laws of Liberia, which were adopted by Liberia’s legislature in 1956. The following year, she was awarded the Liberian Humane Order of African Redemption. In the 1960s, she began to publish widely on law, human rights and southern Africa. She remained closely connected to liberation struggles in Africa, working for the United Nations’ Council for Namibia as its senior political affairs officer 1976-1981.
Landis, who died in 2015, was a consistent supporter of Cornell’s Annual Fund and made a bequest to the Law School in her will. In honor of that bequest, the school’s newest and largest lecture hall was renamed the Elizabeth Storey Landis Auditorium in 2017.
Tsai Ing-wen, LL.M. ’80
In a landmark election in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, LL.M. ’80, was elected president of Taiwan – the first woman to hold the nation’s highest office. In January 2020, she was reelected in a landslide victory that was widely interpreted as a protest against China’s attempts to exert control over the country.
After receiving her law degree from National Taiwan University, Tsai earned her master of laws degree at the Law School, a degree designed for those with law degrees earned outside the U.S. While the LL.M. program is one year, Tsai stayed at Cornell for two, before earning a doctorate in law from the London School of Economics.
Prior to her election, she was one of the prime negotiators for Taiwan’s membership in the World Trade Organization in the 1990s. She served as national security adviser to then-President Lee Teng-hui, Ph.D. ’68, the first Cornell alumnus elected Taiwan’s president, who served 1988-2000.
Upon Tsai’s reelection, Dean Eduardo Peñalver ’94 noted that “ … Tsai Ing-wen stands out among an illustrious list of Cornell Law School alumni who have gone on to distinguished careers in public service.”
Sharice Davids, J.D. ’10
In November 2018, Sharice Davids made history when she became one of two first Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress and the first openly gay representative from Kansas. A Democrat and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Davids defeated four-term incumbent Republican U.S. representative Kevin Yoder in Kansas’s 3rd district, which includes the Kansas City area. Davids was part of a record number of 98 women who were elected to the House of Representatives in that election.
Raised by a single mother who was an Army drill sergeant, Davids attributes her success to hard work and a focus on education. She trained to be a mixed martial arts fighter while attending the Law School and frequently drove to Cortland and Syracuse, New York, to train with coaches. Davids later became a professional mixed martial arts fighter and traveled around the country for competions.
At a ceremony in March 2019 in New York City, the Cornell University Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association awarded Davids the Steven W. Siegel ’68 Award recognizing her significant impact in the LGBTQ community.
“Last year, we reset expectations nationally around politics,” she told the audience. “In the 116th Congress, there are more women and more people of color than ever before. Our members come from different religious backgrounds and different socioeconomic situations. ... We are people who understand the everyday lives and struggles of our constituents – because we are living them ourselves.”
In the November 2020 election, Davids was reelected to Kansas’s 3rd district, winning 53% of the vote.
Cornell Law Review senior editorial board, J.D. Class of 2020
On Feb. 2, 2019, the Cornell Law Review’s senior editorial board made history. One hundred years after Mary Donlon was elected the first woman editor-in-chief of a law review in the United States, they became the first all-female board among the top 14 law schools in the country.
Editor-in-Chief Lauren Kloss, J.D. ’20, noted at the time that she had been surrounded by talented female classmates through her time at the Law School; the majority of her class were women. And her female professors had been strong mentors who created new opportunities for female attorneys.
“We see the great step that has been taken, but we’re also very aware of the many more steps that need to happen,” Kloss said. “This is going to be a great year. We could tell that from our very first meeting.”
This article is adapted from “Trailblazing Women Graduates of the Past Century,” by Cynthia Grant Bowman, Owen Lubozynksi, Sherrie Negrea and Georgina Selenica, all of Cornell Law School.