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Why Women Study Law

1891 — Valedictorian Speech, Commencement, City College of New York, New York City


A man entering the profession of law is not expected to explain why he is studying it. To a woman who enters a class in jurisprudence, however, the first questions put are: “Why do you study law? What are you going to do with it?”

This is because it stands to reason that a man means to make it his profession, and by it to earn his daily bread. A woman does not necessarily, and indeed not often, take it up for this purpose. Since it has not entered into the hearts of most people to conceive of a woman’s studying anything which she does not intend to put to some practical use, the questions of what use law can possibly be to her is not an unnatural one.

There are so many reasons why she should study law that it is difficult to enumerate them. To begin with, a student is said to be as may times a man as he knows languages. Surely this is also true of the arts and sciences. It is preeminently true of law which is so finely connected with every branch of human understanding. The first and basic reason for the study of law, the real reason, of which a woman student usually has no conception when she begins her course, I should formulate this way: — 

The study of law is to a woman a means of culture, linking all the special training of her education and experience, and teaching her to see unsuspected and beautiful relation and harmony in the most alien phases of mental, spiritual, and material life

This understanding only comes after her course in law is completed, and is seldom a conscious reason for undertaking her work. However, I believe that a blind intuition of all this is at the back of the impulse to know jurisprudence. It is difficult, therefore, to make this great value comprehensible to a layman, and to inspire him, a priori, with an understanding which, by its very nature, comes only from experience in the actual field. Still, a woman who has, as a personal possession, skill in any art or science, will see what this value is of which I wrote, For the woman who plays a musical instrument, or paints, or writes, knows that the end and aim of her work and its truest value to her are not playing or painting or writing; she knows that the meaning of her art to her is that it opens the door to great truth and beauty, and enables her better to understanding how to live. This is quite the same in law, excepting that it is broader and deeper in its significance than in any of the three examples I have chosen, for law in its broadest sense is the basis of all three, and indeed of every art and science and of life itself. When I have discussed the more apparent reasons for studying law, and the special values resulting, I shall be able, perhaps, to make this clearer.

The very first reasons which prompt women to study law are various, and they are all exceedingly practical and utilitarian. To be able to converse intelligently with their husbands or fathers or brothers who are lawyers; to be able to listen intelligently and not feel that their advent has broken up a legal discussion among their husbands’ men guests; to understand legal phrases and terms in general reading; to be able to mange property for themselves or their children. — all these I have repeatedly heard given as reasons for plunging into calf-bound tomes. Indeed, I have heard several women quite openly declare that they began the study of law from sheer pique at being baffled by rows and rows of musty law books of whose contents they had not the least conception.

Now, all these are very worthy motives; and, even if the study is begun, as I have known it in one or two cases to be, simply as a pastime, where excepting accident, the law student might have chosen china-painting or architecture, when the mood to study had come up on her, it will prove a great and lasting benefit, though there be no motive at all at the start. A woman has only to spend a few weeks in the work to be supplied with no end of motives for continuing her research.

To begin with, she will be surprised to find how much better she will understand her miscellaneous reading. The number of phrases and allusions to be found in newspapers and periodicals, relating to law and legal proceedings, is very great. These, in some mysterious fashion, men come to understand; most men, however alien to law is their own vocation, have some fairly accurate idea of legal terminology, which they do not know how they came by, any more than they understand their own understanding of machinery, and the processes of building and mining. But, just as nearly all women are ignorant of these last, so are they confronted with what is, to all intents, Greed indeed, when they come upon an allusion to “choses in action,” “easements or servitudes,” “appurtenances and heriditaments,” or “commission de lunatico inquierendo.” Indeed, I really believe that the average woman, or even the woman who ahs a fair knowledge of Latin, doesn’t’ accurately know what habeas corpus proceedings really are!

To the woman who has property to manage, a certain amount of legal knowledge is a necessity, but nearly all women are without it. They do not know at what moment they may be involved in lawsuits, and the attempt of one to grasp all the points of a case, so she may enter into some sort of intelligent conference with her lawyer, is productive of results pathetic indeed, and most wearing on the harassed counselor she has retained. The average woman is nearly as impossible as a defendant or plaintiff in a lawsuit as she is in a witness chair.

To women engaged in various professions and in business, a knowledge of law is obviously of paramount importance. The large class of women employed in law offices as typewriters and stenographers must, of course, have a knowledge of legal phrases. How many of them are there who do not have to go through a course of instruction in the office in which they accept their first position? One of the wisest philanthropies to his fellow professional men I ever knew was that of the lawyer who volunteered his services to the typewriting and stenography class of a certain Young Women’s Christian Association, for two hours a week, to talk to them and give them lessons in that part of law which they must understand before they could become intelligent workers in any lawyer’s office.

To women physicians, an acquaintance with medical jurisprudence is recognized to be of great value and frequent use.

To a woman in business, an understanding of commercial law is a saving of both time and money. A woman who is in business for herself certainly cannot escape having this necessity thrust upon her again and again.

Certainly, for all the women who are anxious to guide the destinies of the nation through the right of universal suffrage, the first ambition should be to learn the laws by which the nation is governed. To those who hope to see women enjoy the franchise, there is no more important step than this, because their ignorance, not only of common legal parlance, which is, after all, a slight matter, but also of the fashion of controlling real issues and the pints involved, is a serious draw ack, in the eyes of men, to their attaining their goal.

If women are proverbially irrelevant, they are also proverbially considered unreasonable. For the development of power to think logically, and swiftly to come to right conclusions, I know of no better id than the study of law. Most wonderfully indeed does it clarify one’s ideas, and direct one’s processes of thought. The woman who is mystified or startled by a quick conclusion, and the woman whose impulse is to contradict the obvious will ;profit remarkably by their study of the works of Mansfield and Marshall and Kent. They will find themselves resorting with less frequency to their old “Because,” — a habit which, unfortunately, does not exist alone in the comic papers.

Aside from these special considerations, however, for women in various branches of industry, there is another reason for studying law which is a part of the broader and deeper reason which I give in the beginning. A woman should study it because she is a member of the human family; because that family is divided into states and governments, all formed and guided as a result of laws; and because, without a knowledge of what these laws prescribe, she is not fitted intelligently to discharge her obligations toward others, to protect herself, or to regard with sufficient charity those who, through ignorance of the law, fail to discharge their obligations toward herself.

This brings me back once more to the value of the study of law because law is beautiful. The beauty of municipal and national life, moving forward steadily and consistently, and almost rhythmically, is not apparent to a woman who has not studied law. This great sense of union and order, which pervades all life, and all its manifestations in its industries and its arts, is one of the broadest means possible for attaining to true culture.



Source: Success Magazine, October 1902, pp. 582-583.