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Fabled Judge A. Leon Higginbotham got his just due at this year’s Sadie T.M. Alexander Commemorative Conference. A portrait of Higginbotham, who was Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, was unveiled amid much fanfare. The portrait was a gift to the school from Robert Potamkin L’70, who was a law clerk for Judge Higginbotham.

The Hon. James T. Giles, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, paid tribute to Higginbotham, recounting his fearless defense of Constitutional rights and courageous stands against discrimination. Dean Michael A. Fitts also spoke of the contributions of Judge Higginbotham, for whom he clerked. Higginbotham was a longtime member and president of the Philadelphia NAACP. He also was a member of Penn Law School’s Board of Overseers and taught courses in race and the law.

The conference explored the transition to new leadership in the black community. Sadie T.M. Alexander was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the first black woman to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar.


In an intellectual form of hazing, some law school professors used to ignore women in their classes on all but one day a year, when they would deign to call on them.

Catherine Struve recounted this sordid history of bias and told inspiring stories of women who broke the legal profession’s glass ceiling at the Second Annual Feminists of Penn Law Dinner last March, sponsored by the Feminist Working Group. Struve, assistant professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, was honored at the dinner. In her heartfelt talk, she recounted several milestones: Arabella Mansfield becoming the first woman admitted to the bar (1869); Charlotte Ray being admitted to the bar as the first black female lawyer (1872); and Sadie T.M. Alexander entering Penn Law School as the first black female student (1924).

Still, she observed, the path to progress has been strewn with obstacles and slights. Although she graduated third in her class at Stanford Law School, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor only received an offer to serve as a stenographer at a law firm - and that was the best offer. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg endured a similar injustice. In 1959, she graduated from Columbia Law School at the top of her class – yet no law firm in New York would hire her.

With women composing one half of the J.D. class at Penn and one-third of American lawyers, there have been strides. But, Struve said, true equality still eludes women, who remain a minority in the upper echelons of the legal profession.

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