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The Online Version
of the Magazine
of Cornell Law School


Fall 2014


Volume 40, No 2


Illustration by Jonathan Burton.


Dolon on the Cornell Women's baseball team, top row, right.

Donlon 6

Mary Dolon during her graduate years at Cornell Law School

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Donlon, bottom row, left, as part of Cornell Law Quarterly

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Illustration by Jonathan Burton.

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Swearing in ceremony for Mary Donlon to become judge of the United States Custom Court

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Official portrait of Judge Donlon

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Donlon in 1966 when she became a Cornell trustee emerita

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Donlon meeting students

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Mary Donlon Hall (three-sided building in the middle of photo), a residence hall on Cornell's North Campus built in 1961

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Illustration by Jonathan Burton.



Table of Contents    Featured Article

Mary Donlon Alger: A Strong Pair of Shoulders

Her credo that every successful woman should provide "a strong pair of shoulders" on which other women could climb was expressed through her personal example, her active encouragement of other women, and her constant campaigns on behalf of the women of Cornell. 1

This is the story of truly remarkable woman, one whose accomplishments are little recognized outside Cornell and even perhaps underappreciated here. Mary Donlon, 1920 graduate of Cornell Law School, was the first woman to be editor in chief of a law review in the United States, decades ahead of any other claimant to that honor. Even more impressive, and not previously known, she was the first woman to become a partner at a Wall Street law firm. Best of all, as the title proclaims, she provided very strong shoulders upon which other women could climb. Having been born in 1893, she did all this against very strong odds.

Donlon was born and grew up in Utica, New York. At that time, Utica was a prosperous mill town on the Mohawk River, attractive to immigrants from Europe. The first decade of the 20th century marked a peak in the growth of the city, with the woolen and cotton mills making fortunes, buildings and parks built one after another, electrification and telephone coverage beginning, electric rail transit lines spreading, and the first automobiles appearing. 2 The population of Utica jumped from 56,383 in 1900 to 94,156 in 1920 (twice what it is today).

Donlon's parents were both born in the United States, but their parents came from Ireland. 3 Neither her father, a retail grocer, nor her mother appear to have had formal education, but they made sure that their four daughters received schooling. Mary Donlon was a graduate of the Utica Free Academy, established in 1840 as a private school for boys but later coeducational and eventually public.

Mary was the second of the Donlons' daughters and the only one of the four reported in the 1920 census as unemployed. Her sister Katherine, 29, a 1912 Cornell grad, was a secretary in a real estate office;Joanna, 23, a 1918 Cornell grad, was a bank clerk;and Elizabeth, 21, a librarian. Mary, of course, was "employed" as a student, graduating from Cornell Law School in 1920.The fact that she was 26 at the time indicates that she probably spent several years working before entering Cornell.

Cornell Law School at that time required only one year of undergraduate education, 4 so Mary Donlon spent a total of four years at Cornell,emerging with an LL.B. in 1920. Although the university had been coeducational since 1872, the atmosphere was not a very egalitarian or welcoming one for women. 5 Women, unlike men, were segregated in Sage College, which was both residential and a classroom building, and their conduct was strictly supervised. Admission of women was restricted by quotas, set in their case by the number of dormitory beds for women (for men, the quotas were set by classroom availability). In 1900, women made up 14% of the total student body, a ratio that did not exceed 25% until the 1960s. The total enrollment in the year Donlon graduated was the largest ever: 5,765 full-time students, of whom 1,136 were women. 6

Women's segregation was not limited to their residence. Women were channeled into fields of study regarded as appropriate for them, primarily Home Economics. Campus organizations did not invite women to participate, and Cornell women students were barred from all fraternity social events. Classes had separate male and female organizations, separate officers and activities, and even separate alumni organizations and reunions well into the 20th century. The Cornell Sun, the yearbook, and other prestigious groups were dominated by men, although some maintained separate auxiliaries for women. While men's athletics had become large scale, women were limited to intramural, non-competitive sports. There were virtually no female professors until the late 1940s, except in Home Economics.

During her first year at Cornell, while she was acquiring the mandatory credits in English and history, languages, science, philosophy and math (six in each group), Mary Donlon was also active in whatever extracurricular events were open to her. 7 In her first year, she played on the women's baseball team and served on the Sports and Pastimes Council. She joined Alpha Omicron Pi, a sorority founded at Cornell in 1908. She served three years on the Cornell Women's Review Board, one year on the Judiciary Committee, and one year on the Women's Self Government Association. At the end of her sophomore year, she was "tapped" for membership in Raven and Serpent, a junior women's secret society, for which about ten women were selected each year based on their participation in extra-curricular activities;the corollary men's organization was specifically intended to recognize emerging leaders. In her third year, Donlon also served on the Sage House Committee and the Mobilization Committee, presumably an organization with some purpose related to U.S. entry into World War I.

World War I had a profound impact upon Cornell, as male students and faculty went into the service. The total number of students fell from 5,264 in 1916 to 3,859 in 1917, a year characterized by a particularly bitter winter. A military school was established on campus, and all student activities ceased. The hardship was increased by the flu epidemic in 1918, and the gloom was not alleviated by alcohol when the town went dry on October 1, 1918. 8 Issue 5 of the Cornell Law Quarterly indicated the relief experienced after the Armistice: "The university year 1919-20 began on October 2, with the curriculum in the College of Law fully restored and the membership of the faculty increased to its pre-war number."

Donlon was clearly an outstanding student in her four-year program at Cornell, and was elected to Mortar Board, the senior honorary society based on grades. Most unusual of all, after two years of service on the Cornell Law Quarterly, she was elected editor in chief, the only woman on a board of 14 editors. As such,she was the only woman elected EIC at any law school in the United States prior to World War II. As noted in the last issue of this magazine, the next three women editors in chief were also at Cornell Law School, in the classes of 1946, 1948, and 1949. 9 Other schools were slow to follow, with the first woman editor in chief at Columbia in 1952, at Stanford in 1964, and at Harvard in 1977. So Cornell Law School stood out in 1920 as very much ahead of its time. It is ironic that an article appeared in the New York Times that same year describing a report issued by a committee of "nine prominent Cornell seniors, representing the Student Council, and the two senior honorary societies, Sphinx Head and Quill and Dagger" calling for an end to coeducation at Cornell as a failure. 10

Donlon's story is even more remarkable because she actually found employment as a lawyer upon graduation from law school at a Wall Street law firm. Women law graduates at that time were largely frozen out of the market for attorneys in New York City. Law firms there and in other large cities rarely hired women;and when they did, the women served as librarians or did temporary work. 11 Donlon stands out as an exception.

The uniqueness of Donlon's success can be best understood by contrasting her with Jane Foster, who graduated from Cornell Law School in 1918. Foster had been an editor of the Law Review and was elected to the Order of the Coif, but was unable to find employment at a New York law firm except as a legal assistant. She worked at the firm from 1918 to 1929, during the postwar economic expansion and the era of the supposed "New Woman." After ten years and with strong recommendations from Cornell faculty sponsors and her former employer, she tried again to find a position as an attorney, only to receive discouraging answers. The Wall Street firm of White &Case wrote to the law school's dean, who had contacted them on Foster's behalf, that "Here in this office we have steadfastly refused to take women on our legal staff and I know that we will continue to adhere to that policy." 12 Foster later endowed the building that now houses the Cornell Law faculty offices, but never worked as a lawyer herself.

Yet two years after Foster's graduation, one New York firm, Burke &Burke, did hire a woman. Donlon had to be one of the very first women every employed as a lawyer on Wall Street. Moreover, Donlon also became the first woman partner at a Wall Street firm, at Burke &Burke in 1928. The distinction of being the first woman partner is an accomplishment that has almost universally been attributed to Soia Mentschikoff in 1944, followed by a long hiatus. 13 Most Wall Street firms did not have a single woman partner until the late 1970s and early 1980s, 14 and women are still underrepresented in this role.

This makes Donlon's achievement extraordinary.

Donlon worked at Burke &Burke for almost 25 years and was the only woman attorney at the firm during that entire period. Her work there apparently included serving as counsel to a number of foreign corporations and their American affiliates and handling legal matters concerning importation of goods to the United States. 15

Donlon remained very involved in Cornell after her graduation. She served as director of the Cornell Alumni Corporation from 1932 to 1934 and as president of the nationwide Federation of Cornell Women's Clubs from 1933 to 1936. In the latter position, she was responsible for establishing a Cornell Day for women, an annual conference on fields of work for women, and the Cornell Senior Alumnae Scholarships, as well as initiating local work with secondary schools. In 1936 the Federation of Cornell Women's Clubs unanimously nominated her as the only woman candidate for alumni trustee. 16

Donlon was elected to the Board of Trustees by the alumnae in 1937 and 1942 and was the only woman on it until 1944. Moreover, she was the only woman later to be reelected by the Board itself, and she served in this capacity from 1946 to 1966. She was the first woman chosen to be on the Executive Committee and served for a time as its vice chair. During her almost thirty years of service as a trustee, she also chaired the law and annuity committees, served on the Library Council and Board on Student Health &Hygiene, and was a member of the Councils for the College of Home Economics and School of Industrial &Labor Relations. 17

Donlon also played an active role in the Republican Party of New York State, serving as a delegate to the national party convention numerous times and as a New York member of the Committee on Resolutions that drafted a national party platform. She was the first woman to head a resolutions subcommittee at a Republican National Convention. 18 Donlon was a member of the Executive Committee of the Republican Party in New York State for sixteen years. Through her Republican Party activities, she was familiar with most of the major Republican political figures in New York, including Governor Thomas Dewey (1943-1954) and state senator Irving Ives.

Because of her Republican Party connections and service as a Cornell trustee, Donlon was instrumental in the establishment of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell. The idea of starting such a school was conceived by Irving M. Ives, at that time the majority leader in the New York State Assembly and chair of the Committee on Industrial and Labor Conditions. Ives had noted the virtual absence of university courses in this area and recommended that the state establish such a school at Cornell. A school for the study of both industry and labor was a novel idea. 19

In 1940 Ives informally approached his friend Mary Donlon about the idea of locating such a state school at Cornell, and she reacted with enthusiasm. She then acted as an intermediary between him and then Cornell president, Edmund Ezra Day. 20 As a member of the Board of Trustees, she then helped him convince the remaining members of the Board, who feared "sponsoring a center of trade union propaganda and … making enemies among industrialists and farmers." 21 Donlon remained a strong supporter of the ILR School after it was established in 1945, and later endowed the Mary H. Donlon lectures there.

In 1944 Governor Dewey appointed Donlon chair of the New York State Industrial Board,and a year later as chair of the New York State Workmen's Compensation Board, in which capacity she served until 1955, commuting from her 70-acre farm in Valatie, 20 miles southeast of Albany. At a dinner in her honor in New York City, Donlon was praised by leaders of industry, business, labor, the professions, and state government for her fairness and impartiality in administration of the workmen's compensation law. A message from Governor Dewey proclaimed that "Few women, and, indeed few men, have done as much for government as Mary Donlon." 22

In 1955 President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Donlon judge of the United States Customs Court, his first appointment of a woman to the federal judiciary. Although she was based in New York City, the Customs Court judges traveled from port city to port city deciding cases about the importation of goods into the United States. Her swearing-in ceremony took place at the Attorney General's office in Washington, by her Cornell Law classmate Judge Elbert Tuttle. A press conference was held afterwards in her hotel room, during which newspapers reported that she was working on a needlepoint chairback for her farm. The New York Times article emphasized this as part of a description of her as stereotypically feminine, adding that she loved to cook, keep house, and grow prize tulips. 23 The Washington Post added that she had taken up needlepoint to keep her hands busy when she gave up smoking. 24

More important, the Washington Post focused on Donlon's remarks about the need to appoint more women to the judiciary and other high government posts. She expressed her hope that the honor given her would stimulate further appointments of women to the federal and state bench, saying "Up to now, not enough women have occupied these judicial positions-from which they could exert a great deal of influence for good." She pointed to the fact that women served on many courts in Germany but none were on the U.S. Supreme Court or Courts of Appeals. With America's emerging role in the postwar world, she stressed, it was especially important for women to take an active part in public affairs.

In short, Donlon did not conform to the stereotype of early women achievers who saw their success as a reflection of individual merit and did not use their positions to ease the way for other women to join them. She was active all her life helping other women. In 1953 she went to Germany at the invitation of the German government to advise women leaders on citizenship training. In 1956, following the crushing of the uprising in Hungary, she established a scholarship to provide aid to any young Hungarian women accepted at Cornell;and in 1974 she established the Mary Donlon Professorship, to be filled only by a woman. Fittingly, one of the new women's residences on the developing North Campus, built in 1961, was named Mary Donlon Hall.

As early as 1961, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Title VII, or the founding of the National Organization for Women, Donlon wrote to the editor of the New York Times about the "lag in recognition of women's qualifications for top-level posts in government and politics," urging the president to appoint women to new judgeships, arguing that "there are several women whose legal training, experience, judicial temperament and character well qualify them for judicial appointment." 25

In one way, however, Donlon did resemble the first generation of women achievers: she remained single for most of her life and never had children. When she retired and moved to Tucson in 1969, however, she met a widower, Martin Joseph Alger, a retired vice president of the New York Central Railroad. In 1971, at the age of 78, she married him, and the couple announced their intention to spend the spring in Tucson and the summer at the Lake Placid Club in New York. 26 On March 5, 1977, she died in Tucson, Arizona. 27

In sum, for a woman born in 1893, Mary Donlon Alger had a very successful career as a lawyer.She never did achieve her wish to become a federal district court judge, though. Although she was recommended for a vacancy on the Southern District of New York in 1955, she was passed over in favor of a man. 28 One has to wonder what glass ceilings she would have shattered if she had been born later.


1 Charlotte Williams Conable, Women at Cornell: The Myth of Equal Education (Cornell University Press, 1977), 131.
2 T. Wood Clarke, Utica For a Century and a Half (Widtman Press, 1952), 86-94.
3 All of the information about Donlon's family comes from the U.S. Census Reports.
4 Morris Bishop, A History of Cornell (Cornell University Press, 1962), 398.
5 The information about Cornell in this period, unless otherwise specified, is taken from Conable, above, at 109-28.
6 Bishop, above, at 439.
7 Information about her activities is taken from The Cornellian yearbook for 1920.
8 Information about Cornell during World War I is taken from Bishop, above, at 428-31.
9 Cynthia Grant Bowman, "Trailblazers: First-Ever Women Editors in Chief of a Law Review," Cornell Law Forum, Spring 2014, at 20.
10 "Seniors at Cornell Assail Co-Education," New York Times, 1 December 1920. To its credit, the author of the New York Times article ridiculed the men's
11 See Cynthia Grant Bowman, "Women in the Legal Profession from the 1920s to the 1970s What Can We Learn from Their Experience about Law and Social Change?" Maine Law Review 61 (2009): 1, 3-5.
12 Peter W. Martin, "Dedication to Jane M.G. Foster," Cornell Law Review 81 (1995): 1, 2.
13 Soia Mentschikoff was later dean of the University of Chicago Law School and coauthor with her husband Karl Llewellyn of the Uniform Commercial Code. See Dawn Bradley Berry, The Fifty Most Influential Women in American Law (Lowell House, 1996), 177, 179-82.
14 Bowman, above, at 5.
15 Eileen Summers, "Another First for Women," Washington Post & Times Herald, 11 August 1955, 47.
16 "Mary Donlon '20 Nominated or Alumni Trustee Position," Cornell Daily Sun, 14 November 1936, 1.
17 Cornell Alumni News 59, no. 9 (January 1957): 302.
18 Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L. Witlieb, The Book of Women's Firsts: Breakthrough Achievements of Almost 1,000 American Women (Random House, 1992).
19 Bishop, above, at 567.
20 Information about this is available in a transcript of an interview with Mary Donlon in 1966, carried out as part of an oral history project about the ILR School and available from the Cornell Library.
21 Bishop, above, at 567.
22 "Mary Donlon Honored, Hanley Heads Speakers Here at Dinner for Official," New York Times, 13 December 1945, 15.
23 Bess Furman, "Court Oath Taken by Mary Donlon: Upstate Woman Sworn In as Customs Judge in a Folksy Ceremony-To Serve Here," New York Times, 11 August 1955, 22.
24 Eileen Summers, "Another First for Women," Washington Post & Times Herald, 11 August 1955, 47.
25 Letters to the Editor, New York Times, 5 April 1961.
26 "Mary Donlon, Judge, Is Wed," New York Times, 16 April 1971, 21.
27 "Mary Donlon, First Woman in New York State Named to Federal Bench, Is Dead," New York Times, 8 March 1977.
28 "Mary Donlon Due for a Bench Post," New York Times, 27 May 1955, 27. There was one woman judge on a federal district court at that time, Burnita Matthews, in D.C., and one woman on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Florence Allen.

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