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Emma Melinda Gillett

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Emma Melinda Gillett was a remarkable attorney who helped establish one of the first coeducational law schools in the United States. In 1896, Gillett and a colleague, ELLEN SPENCER MUSSEY, sponsored a series of lectures in Washington, D.C., for local women interested in law. Despite social pressures against women in the legal profession, Gillett and Mussey held the lectures for two years. They expanded their curriculum and created Washington College of Law, a co-educational institution that later became part of American University.

Gillett was born July 30, 1852, in Princeton, Wisconsin. After her father, Richard J. Gillett, died in 1854, Gillett moved to Girard, Pennsylvania, with her mother, Sarah Ann Gillett, and family. Like Mussey, Gillett attended Lake Erie Seminary in Painesville, Ohio. Upon graduation in 1870, Gillett became a public school teacher.

After ten years of teaching, she decided to move to Washington, D.C., to pursue a LEGAL EDUCATION and career. Her plans were thwarted by the refusal of most district law schools to admit women. Gillett overcame the obstacle by enrolling at Howard University Law College, a well-known, predominantly African American institution that did accept female students. Gillett earned a law degree from Howard in 1882 and a master of law degree in 1883. She began a successful law practice in Washington, D.C., and became vice president of the D.C. region of the previously all-male AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION. She also was elected president of the Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia.

Both Gillett and Mussey had been denied admission to the all-male, all-white law schools in Washington, D.C., which likely motivated the women to form the Washington College of Law. Three additional motivating factors have also been identified. First, women's voluntary associations had experienced significant growth during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Second, opportunities for women in higher education had expanded. Third, the women's suffrage movement had grown considerably.

Gillett and Mussey established a coeducational institution, rather than a women-only law school. They believed that admitting both men and women as students, as well as hiring male faculty and administrators, were necessary to promote gender equality. Perhaps as important, Gillett and Mussey knew that admitting men as students and employing men in faculty and administrative positions were necessary to promote the long-term success of the school. Fifteen years after its establishment, in fact, the number of men enrolled in the school outnumbered the number of women, due largely to the fact that two other law schools in Washington, D.C., began to admit women as students. Nevertheless, only women served as deans of the Washington College of Law until 1947. Washington College of Law earned accreditation from the American Bar Association in 1940 and became a part of American University in 1949.

Gillett succeeded Mussey as dean of the law school in 1913, heading the institution for ten years. Gillett died on January 23, 1927, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 74.


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