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Abby Henry

The Herstory of the Washington College of Law

To celebrate Women’s History Month this March, you don’t have to look any further than American University’s Washington College of Law. Washington College of Law was founded in 1896 by two notable women, Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillet. One hundred and twenty years ago women had very little rights, and women certainly did not have the right to attend most universities or law schools. Since they had been kept out of law schools, Mussey and Gillet founded the Woman’s Law Class to educate women in the law. The first class, which began on February 1, 1896, had an enrollment of just three women. In 1898, the first class graduated. The Woman’s Law Class became co-educational in 1897 when they first started accepting male enrollment. Our very own Washington College of Law is  a pioneer for and by women, “the Washington College of Law became the first law school in the world founded by women; the first to have a woman dean; and the first to graduate an all-female law school class.”

Not many students at American University know the names of Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillet, who played a tremendous role in the formation of the Washington College of Law. Not many students at American University even know the “herstory” of the Washington College of Law. The founding mothers need to be celebrated and praised at American University just as other notable figures are, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

The Washington College of Law continues its unique legacy today with an enrollment of fifty-eight percent women and their Women and the Law Program. Ann Shalleck founded the Women and the Law Program in 1984 and is currently its director. The mission of the Woman and the Law Program is to “create a world in which all people live free from gender-based oppression and violence.” Not only does the program focus on gender, but it allows students to focus on LGBTQI advocacy as well. Additionally, the program is currently working on six projects. Two notable projects are Mapping the Connections of Intellectual Property Rights and Gender Studies and an Interdisciplinary Project on Human Trafficking. The Washington College of Law continues to be a pioneer as it is the only university in the United States to offer two LLM specializations in Gender and the Law. In addition to the Women and the Law program, the Washington College of Law has several other opportunities for feminist education and advocacy. Feminist initiatives for study and internships include: the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, the War Crimes Research Office. Feminist student activities include: the Women’s Law Association, the Lambda Law Society for LGBTQI students, the Human Rights Brief, and the American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law. The Washington College of Law also offers services and resources to the DC community through the Domestic Violence Clinic and the Women and the Law Clinic.


Upcoming Events:

Tuesday, March 19, 6:00 PM to 7:50 PM: Sex-Based Discrimination under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act: Implication for People who are Transgender (WCL N101)

Thursday, March 21, 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM: Gender and Law Lunch and Learn: Sexual Assault in Immigration Detention (WCL N104)

Thursday, March 21, 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM: A Nordic Perspective: Women’s Economic Empowerment (SIS)

Tuesday, March 26, 5:30 PM: Women and Israeli Politics (Abramson Recital Hall at the Katzen Arts Center) 

Tuesday, March 26, 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM: Professional Development: Negotiating Salary, Asking for Promotion (WCL N104)

Friday, March 29, 12:00 PM: Yes She Can Panel Discussion and Book- Signing (Kerwin Hall 301)

Find the Women and the Law Program on Facebook or Twitter


(Photos: 1, 2, 3)

Abby Henry, the President of Her Campus at American, uses she/her pronouns. She is a junior at American University studying Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and Sociology. Her hometown is Canton, Ohio and she previously attended Syracuse University in New York. Her passions include but are not limited to transnational feminism, vegan chicken nuggets, and queer reproductive justice.
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