While we celebrate the groundbreaking and pivotal work of women year-round across fields, this March we’re highlighting the trailblazing women in law profiled in Herma Hill Kay’s Paving the Way, edited by Patricia A. Cain. This month-long blog series showcases the first fourteen women law professors in America who paved the way for Herma Hill Kay and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and all of those who followed. Here are the profiles of Mary Riley, Helen Elsie Steinbinder, and Maria Minnette Massey, all of whom started out as law librarians before becoming regular law faculty members.
Janet Mary Riley was born in New Orleans in 1915. A first generation college student, Riley went on to earn four degrees, in part to combat discrimination she faced: “I had just the three degrees (the BA, the BS in LS, and the LLB), and I thought that as a woman, I had better get myself another degree. I didn’t want any excuses for not getting a promotion.”
Riley started out as a law librarian and assistant professor at Loyola in 1945, while taking courses in law. After earning her degree, she became eager to make a career switch and earned a spot on the Loyola law faculty in 1955. Drawn to law reform, Riley helped to change Louisiana’s community property laws to make them more equitable, including ending the husband’s sole authority as “head and master.” She was also a civil rights advocate, and an active member of the Commission on Human Rights of the Catholic Community of the South, attending an integrated mass each month with thirty Black and white members to protest segregation. She was known as a mentor to other women faculty in law, and in 2000 she received the Adjutor Hominum Award from Loyola, given to an outstanding alumna whose life exemplifies “moral character, service to humanity, and unquestionable integrity.”
Born in Oakland, California in 1929, Maria Minnette Massey earned her LLB degree from the University of Miami in 1951. While finishing her MA thesis in Government, she received a job offer to join the University as an Assistant Law Librarian. An active member of the AALL, she led one of the earliest studies of law librarians that helped expose a (gendered) pay gap between law librarians and regular faculty. After earning her LLM degree from NYU, she became a tenured Associate Professor of Law at Miami, focusing in Federal Jurisdiction, Civil Procedure, Pleading, and Moot Court. She was a beloved teacher, awarded “Best Law Prof” twice by the Student Bar Association. Massey also served as assistant and then acting dean of the Miami Law School, becoming one of the few women law deans in the country.
Born in New York City in 1922, Helen Elsie Steinbinder worked as a special recruit in the Library of Congress after receiving her MLS with distinction. In 1951, Steinbinder became one of the first women law students at Georgetown, taking evening classes while continuing her full-time job at the Library of Congress. After winning the prize for highest standing in her class and first working as a Research Librarian at Georgetown, she became the first woman professor of law at the school. She was the sole female faculty member there for over fifteen years, until 1972.
Paving the Way documents the first wave of trailblazing female law professors and the stage they set for American democracy. Publishing April 2021.