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WCL History Moves to the Web

A new digital archives makes it possible to travel back in time for a glimpse into life at the first law school founded by and for women.

AU’s treasure trove of digitized history has expanded to include the Washington College of Law Historical Collection, which features scrapbooks, letters, and old student newspapers from a time when women voting was a radical notion.

Over 3,300 pages were digitized for the collection, which not only preserves the scrapbooks from damage, but makes them widely available on the Web.

The law school was founded in 1896 by two suffragette lawyers, Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillett. Both had been turned down for admission at other law schools before entering the law through a back door—Mussey by studying privately with her lawyer husband, and Gillett through Howard University’s law school, where her push to break barriers met with sympathy.

Much of the collection relates to Mussey, who figures prominently in the scrapbooks, a handsome middle-aged lady in a big Edwardian hat who also happened to be “the only woman dean of a law school in the world,” according to a 1904 clipping.

“She must have been a larger-than-life figure,” says archivist Susan McElrath, noting that much of the material was collected and saved by alumni who knew the women’s rights activist.

The collection illustrates the vast changes that the women of that era experienced and promoted. Mussey reminisces in one article about how, as a teen in the Civil War era, she was offered the chance to study in the office of a lawyer who spotted her ability—but turned him down for fear of the “notoriety” that would come to a woman studying law.

By the early 1900s, Mussey had come a long way. So had other women, who flocked to the new law school unconcerned about the “notoriety” of being women lawyers. Old student papers show the strides being made by the first women to graduate from WCL. Even before they won the vote, WCL’s women were serving as judges, pairing up to start law firms, and as one paper put it, “improving their financial status” with lucrative jobs straight out of law school.

The early legal pioneers often leavened their radical vision with reassurance to their Victorian-born peers that the essence of gender relations wouldn’t change. For instance, Mussey and fellow law school founder Emma Gillett were asked by a paper in 1911 for their opinions—not on politics, but on fashion. The paper, the archives reveals, wanted to know what these suffragettes thought of “harem pants,” a baggy trouser in vogue with radical fashionistas.

Their verdict? The vote, yes; but pants? Of course not. They each favored skirts of the practical variety, with strong, deep pockets.

Mussey had something else to say in 1911 of a more controversial nature. That year, she predicted that women would soon be in the Senate—and that one day, a woman would be president of the United States.

The digitized sources from the law school’s early years joins an increasing number of digital holdings at AU, which include:

  • 15,389 text files in the Drew Pearson’s Washington Merry-Go-Round Collection of columns by the syndicated Washington columnist
  • over 2,000 issues of historical Eagle student newspapers
  • 68 recordings in the John R. Hickman Collection of vintage radio programs
  • over 300 images in the historical photo collection