Justice O’Connor speaks

The Penn Law School has played a groundbreaking role in American legal education over the course of its 150 years.

That much was made clear when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, told the story of another trailblazing woman in her remarks at the Law School’s 150th anniversary celebration Nov. 17.

After accepting a medal for distinguished achievement from yet another trailblazer — President Judith Rodin — O’Connor spoke to the overflow crowd in Sharswood Hall about the first woman to graduate from an American law school, Carrie Burnham Kilgore (L 1883).

O’Connor spoke of the series of roadblocks placed in Kilgore’s path to a legal career. When she first sought admission to Penn’s law department in 1870, the then dean responded, “I do not know what the Board of Trustees will do, but as for me, if they admit a woman I will resign. I will neither lecture to Negroes nor women.”

For the next decade, she and her lawyer husband, Damon Kilgore, fought in the legislature and the courts to reverse this decision, and in 1881, she was finally admittted. Upon her graduation, however, the Court of Common Pleas denied her motion for admission to the Pennsylvania bar, touching off another struggle that ended with the state legislature changing the law in 1886 so she could be admitted. And when her husband died two years later, she refused to abandon her two young daughters, opting as many women do today to both pursue her career and raise her children.

“It was with this characteristic fortitude and courage that Carrie Kilgore charted the way for us women lawyers and judges,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor also praised the school for its commitment to service, citing its recent American Bar Association Pro Bono Award as evidence.

In addition to O’Connor’s speech, two Penn Law grads read official proclamations in honor of the school’s anniversary. Philadelphia City Solicitor Ken Trujillo (L’86) read a proclamation on behalf of Mayor John Street — a Temple Law grad, he noted — and State Senator Michael O’Pake (L’64) presented a similar tribute from the State Senate of Pennsylvania.

The anniversary gala crowd, Dean Michael Fitts noted, was the largest ever to attend an event at the Law School that required television monitors installed throughout the school.


Originally published on January 18, 2001