Michigan Law’s Class of 1971 attended law school during a tumultuous and pivotal period in US history: The Vietnam War was raging, women were breaking out of prescriptive molds, and a new wave of civil rights was reshaping the nation.
It also was a year of significant demographic change in the Law Quad. Although the 28 women in the Class of ’71 made up only 7 percent of the student body, that number was more than double the preceding class—an upward trend that would continue in the years and decades to come. “It was definitely a breakthrough year for women standing up for themselves and a big step up for a lot of law schools, Michigan included,” says Muriel Nichols, ’71. “Something about having the presence of more women in the class, things started to change.”
“If you’re going to be a lawyer, you can’t be intimidated. The women were all very supportive of one another, and we stuck together,” adds Dawn Hertz, ’71.
It was still a year before Title IX would make gender discrimination in federally funded educational institutions illegal, but the class took steps to help improve equality at the Law School. Students successfully petitioned the administration to bar law firms who were hostile toward women from on-campus interviews, and students founded the first chapter of the Women Law Students Association. Female students also participated in acts of resistance that ultimately changed the deleterious practices that were typical in legal education at the time, including sexism in classroom instruction.
Despite the challenges they faced, the women who graduated from Michigan Law in 1971 went on to lead careers of distinction in the media, politics, the judiciary, and throughout the legal profession. “We were on the cutting edge of women’s rights and took steps for the inclusion of women in the workplace. We were a force to be reckoned with,” says Hertz. “These things don’t change overnight, but it’s a process and the law teaches you that you can’t always see the big picture, but you do your part and things will change.”
Mary Kay Kane, another 1971 graduate, blazed her own trail in legal education. Born in Detroit, Kane went on to become one of the world’s foremost scholars in federal civil procedure. After obtaining her JD, she began to teach and eventually became the first female dean of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, before becoming chancellor in 2001. She remained active on the Hastings campus even after her retirement in 2007, acting as a mentor to many, continuing to contribute to scholarly research in her field, and authoring 14 volumes of the flagship treatise on federal civil procedure. Kane passed away in 2021 due to complications from cancer.
A group of friends from the Class of ’71, including Nichols, Hertz, and a number of their classmates, both men and women, have remained close over the years. They decided to celebrate their 50th reunion by establishing a new scholarship fund to commemorate the accomplishments of their female classmates. “I found my home at the Law School,” says Hertz. “No matter what you do in life, a law degree is a very helpful thing to have. All of the women of this class know how much a Michigan education provided to our lives. If we can give that opportunity to someone else, that would feel like a worthy accomplishment.”
The generosity of the class is also reflected through a bequest made by Karin Verdon, ’71, a retired labor relations attorney who passed away earlier this year. The Karin A. Verdon Technology in Legal Education Fund will enable the Law School to acquire or upgrade technologies necessary to classroom instruction and clinical law programs.
The Class of ’71 marked a turning point for female representation in the Quad: Fifty years after their graduation, the Law School’s graduating class had more women than men for the first time ever. Through this new scholarship, future generations will continue to benefit from this pioneering class of women, and their contributions have helped change Michigan Law for the better.—CLP
If you would like to make a contribution to the Michigan Law Scholarship Fund in Honor of the Women of the Class of ’71, please contact Mary Buikema at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734.615.4517.