Career & Practice

Breyer shares views on treatment of female classmates at Harvard during law school talk

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Stephen Breyer

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Photo by Evan Vucci/The Associated Press.

In a discussion at the George Washington University Law School on Tuesday, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer admitted that he did not fully appreciate how challenging sexism was for his female classmates at Harvard Law School in the early 1960s.

“They were having a tougher time than we thought,” said Breyer, who also found it strange that Harvard Law admitted few women and described how those women were treated by male faculty as “ridiculous.”

The National Law Journal has coverage of Breyer’s discussion with Dayna Bowen Matthew, the dean of the George Washington University Law School. It is part of a series of talks on his life and career.

Judith Richards Hope, one of 15 female law students in Breyer’s class of more than 500, discusses obstacles that the women faced in her book Pinstripes & Pearls: The Women of the Harvard Law Class of ‘64 Who Forged an Old Girl Network and Paved the Way for Future.

According to the National Law Journal, she wrote about Erwin Griswold, the law school’s dean, who hosted dinner parties for female law students and asked them to explain why they were taking the place of men. She also wrote about Barton Leach, a professor who wouldn’t ask the women questions unless it was “Ladies Day.”

Breyer wrote the book’s foreword, and according to the National Law Journal, he said Tuesday the experience of early female law students was similar to pioneers who settled Nebraska and other places in the western frontier. He also pointed out that the “past is a different country” where “people do things differently.”

“You have to try to bring yourself to understand the state of mind and the state of mind of Erwin Griswold, Barton Leach and a lot of the faculty was, ‘Well, these are all jobs that are going to men, why should a woman have one?’” Breyer said. “‘Why are you here at Harvard?’”

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