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The Online Version
of the Magazine
of Cornell Law School


Spring 2014


Volume 40, No 1



Mary Donlon Alger '20



Doris Banta Pree '46



Elizabeth Storey Landis '48


Jean Ripton Peterson '49

Table of Contents   Featured Article

Trailblazers: First-Ever Women Editors in Chief of a Law Review


A number of other law schools have claimed that they produced the first woman editor inchief (EIC) of a law review. These claims are all off by several decades.

In fact, Mary Donlon, a 1920 graduate of Cornell Law School, was the first woman to head a review, the Cornell Law Quarterly as it was then called. Even more impressive, she was followed by the second, third, and fourth "first" women EICs in the 1940s, long before any other law journal got around to electing a female to this post. Although Mary Donlon Alger died in 1977, the remaining three women-Doris Banta Pree, Elizabeth Storey Landis, and Jean Ripton Peterson-were all still alive at the end of 2013 and graciously agreed to my interviewing them. These Cornell Law graduates all went on to employment as lawyers for their entire working lives, and all of them appear to have had happy marriages as well, although only one had children.

Based on my previous research about women in the legal profession, their experience was quite rare. They succeeded at a time when women lawyers were not welcomed into the profession. Indeed, there were very few women in law schools in the interwar period, and jobs for women lawyers were hard to come by. Positions for women opened up only when male lawyers and potential law students were drafted during World War II. Law firms desperate for help began to hire women lawyers to replace men in the service, although most of these women were replaced with veterans when the war was over. Law schools also began to admit women in larger numbers during the war time years as a matter of sheer survival in the absence of young men to fill their rosters. Robert MacCrate has estimated that women increased from 3 to 12 percent of all law students at that time, only to drop to prewar levels when the war was over. The second woman EIC at Cornell insists that she would never have been admitted if it were not for the war.

''It was a time of change and we were happy to be part of it.'' -Elizabeth Storey Landis

Doris Banta Pree

Doris Banta hailed from Missouri, which made her a bit of an odd duck among the students who assembled to enter Cornell Law in 1943, most of whom were from the East. (A classmate and friend from Brooklyn teased that she could not understand Banta's accent.) Her father was a country lawyer, so she grew up in a rural area and describes herself as having been a terrible tomboy, loving the out of doors and not particularly intent upon study. She attended a small women's college in St. Charles, Missouri, and began to excel academically as a student of English and political science, graduating at the top of her class and serving as student body president.

Banta wanted to become a lawyer from very early in her life, largely from listening to her father talk about his experience trying cases throughout the county. He had no comment on her plans when she was in grade school, but when she followed through by applying to law school, he discouraged her. He told her law was no job for a woman and would be an uphill battle. When she arrived at Cornell Law School in 1943, it was very sparsely populated, at about the bottom of the wartime enrollment, just before a few veterans began to return. A large number of the small student body were women, who had clearly been accepted reluctantly according to Banta. "Professors didn't like having us," she says. "You could just tell they didn't like it. . . . Older ones were clearly less accepting than the young ones. . . . " As an example, she describes her Contracts professor,"a lovely gentleman and a great scholar," who would take off his hat and bow to women if he met them on the street. "But he gave us a tirade [in class] one day about what a mistake it was to have given married women the right to contract. We were rolling our eyes and looking at one another."

Banta found being a law student interesting, and a lot harder than her previous studies. The curriculum was tough, and the professors called on male and female students alike. The discrimination she felt was more subtle; the women students were not treated differently from the men in class. Banta spent most of her time studying and had "not much time to frolic" as she had in college. At the end of the first year, she had made law review based on her grades. She served first as book review editor and then was elected EIC. "There was not that much competition," she says, and few people to do all the work. She moved into an office with two male editors, and a woman was employed to act as managing editor. Her responsibilities consisted of revising and editing articles, checking citations and their format, reading and selecting articles, and entering into correspondence to solicit other pieces. Asked whether she enjoyed her law review experience, she says, "It added to the stress but I would say I enjoyed it. Over the years it was a shifting scene, but I particularly enjoyed the two men who shared the office and generally went to dinner with them at the Home Ec. School."

When Banta graduated in 1946, she was offered a job on campus doing research, but she wanted to go back to Missouri. She took the bar exam there within weeks of graduation. Cornell professors helped her find a job. One professor turned up a possibility in Kansas City, but she wanted to be in St. Louis, though she was competing with the unusually large number of women who had graduated from the law school at Washington University during the war. But law firms were not generally hiring women, and most of those women could not find jobs. Luckily, a young Cornell Law professor had a classmate from Harvard at what was then a large (fifteen-member) law firm in St. Louis and recommended Banta for a position there. The firm had put a large will construction case on hold during the war because of the absence of male lawyers. Although there was resistance to hiring women to replace them, the firm was reviving the case and very much needed help on it. Her Cornell professor's friend recommended hiring her, and Banta was offered an interview with a senior partner. She describes him as being an "interesting and conservative old guy, who gave in after interviewing me. Other partners didn't want me at all. I was of course the only woman. I practiced with them for years and I was always the only woman. My contemporaries had a terrible time."

She practiced with the St. Louis firm and its successor for thirty-five years, although she was not made a partner until the early 1960s, almost twenty years after she'd started there. Initially the firm would not put her full name on the firm stationery, referring to her as D.J. Banta. It also regularly held meetings in men-only clubs, some of which would not allow women even to come in for a meal. Although she had gone into law because she was interested in trying cases, she spent most of her career doing appellate work, with a very few trials in lower courts on the side, while she watched young male associates get assigned to work on litigation.

In 1980, Banta-now Doris Banta Pree-left the law firm to become vice president and general counsel at the St. Louis Water Company, a client for which she had worked at the firm. She worked there for eleven years. During that time, she became involved in arbitration, having done some labor work at the firm. She litigated on behalf of the company in arbitration proceedings and negotiated labor agreements as well. She also had the personally difficult experience of having to defend the water company against claims of discrimination against women.

Pree faced her own kind of discrimination at the water company. When she reached age sixty-five, the president called her in and tried to get her to retire. She not only refused, but wrote a memo to support the legal argument that they could not force her to retire. Eventually they did force her out at age seventy, but she didn't want to go to the EEOC to fight the obvious age discrimination. She worked an additional year on retainer and did some "of counsel" work for the water company after that, and she volunteered another year with legal aid. After a number of years, she realized she didn't want to get up and go to work all the time, even though she was still interested in law and attended continuing education events. She has remained active, traveling a good deal at first, riding her bicycle, and gardening. "This may be the last year, though," she says, "I'm ninety-one."

Looking back, Doris Banta Pree sees herself as having been very lucky to have had a legal career at all. "Compared to the 1970s, there were so few of us. We rolled with a lot of the discrimination, although we knew judges didn't like us and that we were being discriminated against. [But] I was good at what I did and that was a lot of it. The senior partner who hired me probably thought he would get a smart law yer cheap and that I wouldn't be there long. A bright young Jew came back from the service, and it was the same deal-getting something exceptional on the cheap." When asked what advice she would give to young women lawyers today, she replies, "Go into private practice; you can do it today. You will need to pick a specialty to have success. Everyone is specialized. Choose your field, settle in, and make your career there."

Elizabeth Storey Landis

Eliizabeth (Betsy) Storey entered Cornell Law School in the fall of 1945, along with the returning veterans. She too came from the Midwest, having been born in Wisconsin, and was educated there until her family moved to the Chicago area, where she went to high school. She attended Mount Holyoke as an undergraduate, then earned a master's degree in public administration from Syracuse University before entering law school. Storey chose Cornell in part because it had a reputation as being a good place for women. There were three women law students in her class. They didn't organize or act politically to change things, she says, but saw themselves as "ground-breakers." "Our predecessors had done a good job laying the groundwork, making it possible for women to do things they wouldn't have considered otherwise. We had no doubt things were going to be getting better. It was a time of change, and we were happy to be part of it."

Storey did well in law school and soon was working on the law review. She was elected co-editor in chief with Will J. Schapp Jr. in 1947-1948. With characteristic wit, she remembers having enjoyed the law review but being "glad that I didn't have to do it full time!" Storey had the distinction of coauthoring one of the lead articles published in 1948 with Bertram F. Willcox, a professor of law who specialized in labor and arbitration.  A comment co-written with William B. Landis Jr. appeared in the Quarterly in 1949 as well.

What she remembers with most fondness about Cornell Law School was meeting her future husband (and coauthor), Bill Landis. At a meeting or class very early in her law school career, when she was still feeling "scared to death of what I was doing," she was seated next to this guy whom she describes as "very polite." A couple of days later she got a call from him, and their first date followed soon after. They were a couple throughout law school and married shortly after graduation. Landis was the son of a lawyer from upstate New York.

Both Bill and Betsy Landis took the New York State Bar exam in the summer of 1948, and he eventually was hired by the firm of Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander in New York City, where he spent his entire career working as a tax and corporate law yer. Betsy Landis earned a doctorate in law from the University of Lyon, France, in 1950, but it was not easy to find a job. Milton Konvitz, a professor of law with a joint appointment at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, eventually hired her to help him on an immense project to codify the law of Liberia, work that began Landis's lifelong involvement in African law. Konvitz had been invited by President William V.S. Tubman of Liberia in 1951 to undertake this task; Landis joined the small staff that helped Konvitz accomplish it.

In 1952, Konvitz traveled to Liberia to assemble materials that had previously been held by private attorneys and went back regularly thereafter until the coup in 1980. Prior to this time, the laws of Liberia were held by various law yers who charged fees to people who wanted to look at them. With the president's backing, Konvitz was able to get copies of all these laws. His Cornell staff was charged with attempting to resolve conflicts and thus harmonize the statutes and precedents Konvitz obtained from Liberia; where that could not be done, they simply borrowed from American law, on which Liberian law was based. The new criminal code, for example, was taken from the New York State Criminal Code.

Landis lived in New York City, but this was not an obstacle to her working on the codification project, which involved reviewing the documents brought back from Liberia, doing research on U.S. law, then coming up with a structure that was coherent and drafting new codes to submit to the Liberian legislature for passage. The draft code prepared by Konvitz and his staff was adopted by the legislature in Liberia in March 1956. On November 29, 1957, both Konvitz and Landis were honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., to celebrate publication of the code by Cornell University Press. The Liberian ambassador presented the Order of the Star of Africa to Konvitz and to Cornell's president, while Landis and two other former students were awarded the Liberian Humane Order of African Redemption.  Cornell Law School Library became, and remains, the main repository of Liberian law in the United States.

For several years, Landis's husband was assigned to the Paris office of his law firm, and she accompanied him there. She worked in 1964 as a professor of African studies at the American College in Paris. In the 1960s, she also began to publish widely on law, human rights, and Southern Africa; two-part articles by Elizabeth S. Landis appeared in the Yale Law Journal and in the Cornell Law Quarterly.  In later years, she would have been an obvious candidate for legal academia, but there were very few women law professors at that time.

Landis also became an activist, intensely involved in working for the independence of countries in Africa. When the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) was organized in 1953 to support these liberation struggles, she was one of the earliest board members, bringing important legal skills as well as immense knowledge about Africa to this role. And, says George Houser, former director of ACOA, "her sense was very good. She was someone who was listened to by others who were working in the field. She was very committed to Africa." Landis edited ACOA's Africa-UN Bulletin, in which she summarized what was happening at the United Nations with respect to Africa, served as vice president of ACOA in the 1970s, and remained on the board until the New York office closed in 2002. Friends from that period remember that many liberation movement leaders, including Amilcar Cabral, were entertained in the Landis apartment on Park Avenue.

Between 1958 and 1986 Betsy Landis published numerous articles in the ACOA journal Africa Today, and began to identify herself in them as a "sometime specialist-consultant to the United Nations on Southern African affairs." In 1975 she gave extensive testimony on Namibia to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on African Affairs. In short, she was devoting her efforts to work on Africa, whether in official or unofficial capacities.

Eventually Landis's affiliation with the UN became more regular, and she worked for the UN Council on Namibia as its senior political affairs officer from 1976 to 1981. In this capacity she served as chief aide to the UN Commissioner for Namibia, first for Seán MacBride, the well-known politician and human rights activist from Ireland, and then for Martti Ahtisaari, future president of Finland and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Several people who knew her then describe her as the kind of person who did the solid, hard work behind the scenes and stayed out of the limelight.

Landis's commitment to Namibia went much beyond her job at the United Nations. She was intensely and personally committed to the liberation of Namibia and worked toward this goal both through ACOA and on her own. Undeterred by the fact that in Namibia she was persona non grata as a representative of either the UN or ACOA, she entered the country simply as Mrs. William Landis and spent her time there collecting Namibian law for the new nation. "In this case," she says, the conservative norms of society worked in our favor!. . Although a lot of my work took place in museums and libraries [for documentation, precedent, and archival work], the work was very exciting. . . . [L]ots of people working for the same goal-the liberation of Namibia." Some of the exhaustive research she did is reflected in the numerous articles she wrote about Namibia, including one published in the Yale Journal of International Law in 1985. Landis knew and was known by all the prominent leaders of the liberation movement SWAPO (South West Africa People's Organization), in- cluding Namibia's first president Sam Nujoma.

Landis still lives in the same apartment on Park Avenue where Cabral and other leaders of the African liberation movements were entertained in the past. It is filled with beautiful African art, including many graceful abstract statues of women in carved wood.

Jean Ripton Peterson

Jean Ripton entered Cornell Law School in 1946, when the enrollment had increased and women were no longer necessary to fill the seats emptied by the war. She was nineteen years old at the time. The only child of a pharmacist and a teacher in Buffalo who both encouraged her academically, she had found school easy and skipped both second and seventh grades. She earned her B.A. with a major in history at D'Youville College, an all-women's liberal arts college in Buffalo where her mother had taught. She was first in her class, as well as class president, and received scholarships throughout both college and law school. Although she knew no one who was a lawyer, she liked the idea of law school; it sounded interesting. She chose Cornell because her mother had visited the campus and reported that it was beautiful and that female students were treated well there.

Ripton reports that she was one of seven women in her class at Cornell Law. Professors treated men and women the same, she says. Her male fellow students tended to be older, returned from the experience of war, and respectful of their female classmates. She loved being a law student and studied very hard, going to the library directly from class and look- ing up every case that had been mentioned in the lecture. Her one problem was that she had a tendency to murmur instead of speaking loudly and distinctly. One professor worked on improving her performance, repeatedly saying "Speak so that all can hear you, Miss Ripton!" Her speaking style, along with assignment to a partner who was not a good student, contributed to a disappointing first-year moot court. Otherwise her grades were outstanding.

Selection for law review at that time was by competition; Ripton wrote two notes in her bid to join, both of which were published. By the time she was elected EIC, she was first in her class and had won the Board- man Prize. She thinks she was elected EIC in part because "I wasn't difficult to get along with." She moved into the EIC's office and busied herself worrying about citations and deadlines, selecting articles of interest for publication, and urging the other editors to do their tasks. At the same time, she reports, she always went to class on time.

In addition to scholarships, Ripton supported herself with summer work back home in Buffalo. A friend of her mother had introduced her to Stanley Falk, a lawyer with a firm in Buffalo, who took a liking to her. He hired her to work at the firm in the summers and mentored her, calling her in to his office to give her advice about how to do things. When she graduated, she went to work at his law firm.

Ripton, like Landis, met her husband during law school. Bertil Peterson, she says, "was across the aisle from me, and
I could watch him during class. He had a very good speaking voice and had been the State of Wisconsin debating champion." The two married in July 1949, right after taking the New York State bar exam, and he began work as a trial attorney at a firm in Buffalo. He encouraged his wife to keep work- ing and was very supportive of her throughout her career, hiring babysitters when necessary.

Where Jean Ripton Peterson's career diverges from the experience of the other women whose lives are portrayed in this article is that she had children-eight of them. She worked at the law firm until the first was born and continued to work in a variety of capacities thereafter. Her mentor, Falk, was on the Board of Bar Examiners, and hired her as an assistant bar examiner to write exam questions and grade the exams, a job that could be done from home. She worked at this job from 1951 to 1981, when her youngest child was in middle school. From 1977 until 1984 she also worked as the chief attorney for the Erie County Court.

Raising eight children and working as a lawyer was not easy. Peterson would sometimes work in the back of her car, parked in the driveway where she could see her children in the kitchen through the floor-to-ceiling window. One day she told her five-year-old not to disturb her, and he took this direction so seriously that he told a reporter with whom she very much wanted to talk that she could not be disturbed.

Peterson was active in the Buffalo bar association, eventually serving as its treasurer, and popular with local lawyers. She ran for office a number of times-for town judge, county legislature, supreme court-although she never won election. Her election literature portrays her surrounded by her many family members.

From 1984 to 1988, Peterson worked as the attorney for the Town of Hamburg, just south of Buffalo. She also served as counsel for the New York State Industrial Development Agency, in Hamburg, advising the agency on development projects seeking favorable tax treatment, from 1984 until 2001, when she finally retired from the practice of law.

As she looks back over her career, Peterson thinks that she was "lucky all around. I enjoyed a lot of it; grading bar exams was monotonous, though." She would advise young women considering a career in law to get advice about whether they are suited for it; "part of it can be very monotonous,  part interesting." One of her daughters is a lawyer. If Ripton had not become a law yer, she says, ". . . I would have had to be a teacher," one of the few professions open to women at the time.

Cornell Law School should feel very proud of these graduates, to whom it gave an opportunity to succeed at law when few women were welcome in the legal profession. Each of them faced problems because of their sex nonetheless. Doris Banta Pree worked as a corporate lawyer her entire life but would have preferred litigation; she also wanted to become a judge and never attained that goal. Elizabeth Storey Landis hardly ever had a full time job, but instead spent much of her life working more than full time in various unpaid capacities, although she had the qualifications that would have fitted her for a position as a law professor today. Jean Ripton Peterson was the only one who put together work and the burdens of a large family, and she did so by working at a somewhat boring job for a large part of her work life. She also wanted to be a judge but did not realize this ambition despite numerous campaigns. Their sex played a big role in our society's underutilization of these women's talents. But each one made very good use of her legal education, and not a single one would say that she ever regretted becoming a lawyer.


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