Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, January 29, 2009


Page 15



J.B. Scott Heads Law School Marked by Lack of Sexism




The Los Angeles Law School commenced operations at about 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 13, 1897. The school—which in 1968 became the first major law school in the nation with a woman dean (Dorothy Nelson, now a judge of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals)—was marked, from the outset, by a lack of sexism.

As I mentioned last week, the institution, nowadays called USC Gould School of Law, started out in 1896 as something akin to a bar review course. It was taught by attorney James B. Scott.

While the bar review sessions had been held in the hall of a men’s group, the fledgling law school (not yet related to USC) utilized rooms in a newly opened building of a women’s club, the Ebell Society. Now known as The Ebell of Los Angeles, it owns the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.

A July 8, 1934 article in the Los Angeles Times, reflecting on the 40-year history of the club, recites that the Ebell’s headquarters in 1897, at 724 S. Broadway, was “the first clubhouse in Los Angeles devoted exclusively to women’s meetings.”

Well, almost exclusively. How did the co-educational Los Angeles Law School gain space there? On the board of trustees of the school was Harriet Williams Russell Strong, a founder and the first president of the Ebell Society. She was an inventor, water conservationist, suffragette, entrepeneur, essayist, and rancher.

A Spring, 1977 article in “USC Law” by the school’s associate dean, John G. “Tom” Tomlinson, provides this information:

“During the 1890’s, Strong toured the country with her friend, Susan B. Anthony, advocating women’s suffrage, economic independence, and admission to the professions. Always an advocate for economic independence, Strong pushed for women’s participation in professional life.”

That’s what motivated her, Tomlinson notes, to align herself with the newborn educational institution. He remarks that Scott, as dean, “benefitted from one of the few female trustees of a U.S. law school.”

Tomlinson attributes Strong’s “important civic connections” with the school gaining space in the building used by the Ebell Society.

The law school did not remain long in that first home, however. By the time the initial school year closed on June 21, it had moved to the Potomac Block, at 217 S. Broadway…one of a number of buildings in which it would lease space over the next few years.

Strong was among several influential people who got behind the project in 1897 to establish the second law school in California—the first being Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. The president of the Board of Trustees was Erskine M. Ross, a judge of the United States Circuit Court of Appeal, and the vice president was Percy R. Wilson, an 1888 reorganizer of the Los Angeles Bar Assn.

Among those serving as trustees with Strong were Henry W. O’Melveny, founder of the firm that became O’Melveny & Myers (and who would become 1919 Los Angeles Bar Assn. president); state Sen. Robert N. Bulla; Jonathan S. Slauson, a lawyer who became a land developer and bank president (and, yes, Slauson Avenue is named after him); former state Sen. R.H.F. Variel (who was to serve as 1900 Los Angeles Bar Assn. president); and George H. Smith (soon to serve as a justice of the District Court of Appeals).

Roger Sherman Page was secretary. He had been president of the Los Angeles Law Students Assn., founded in 1896, the group which in 1897 morphed into the law school. In 1898, Page would be admitted to the bar, and four years later, he would marry the daughter of R.H.F. Variel.

Frederick W. Houser was financial secretary. He became a  member of the California Supreme Court.

The faculty was comprised of Scott and three other professors.

Of the 21 persons who took an oral bar exam before the state Supreme Court on Oct. 11, 1898, 19 passed; of that number, nine had attended classes at the Los Angeles Law School, and two of them— Sara I. Wilde and Bertha Lebus—were women.

Tomlinson’s article says:

“Wilde’s presence at the Law School likely reaffirmed Scott’s appreciation for women’s intellectual capabilities, ability to work, and stamina for professional schools—all of which were currently called into question by critics of women in the professions. Ambitious women in professional schools were an integrel aspect of Scott’s experience—one of his sisters graduated from the Philadelphia Women’s College of Medicine and practiced medicine in Los Angeles; the other enjoyed a profession as a painter. Her portrait of James Brown Scott still hangs in the halls of Harvard Law School.”

Tomlinson credits Scott, as well as a successor, with having “made the Law School accessible to women.”

Wilde on Jan. 1, 1903 was wed to Houser.

Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company

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