Shirley Adelson Siegel ’37 (left) is presented with the 2019 Barnard Medal of Distinction by Chief of Staff to the Vice President of Health and Wellness Virginia Ryan ’83 (right)

Barnard has a rich history of women in the law, going back nearly a century. 

In celebration of Women’s History Month (March), read about eight alumnae who have used their legal training and acumen to advocate for women’s rights, racial justice, the rights of unhoused Americans, and more.

Shirley Siegel

Shirley Adelson Siegel ’37

Adelson Siegel was many things in her remarkably accomplished 101 years — lawyer, activist, and beloved member of the Barnard community. From the beginning of her journey at the College as a 15-year-old student, Adelson Siegel was dedicated to fighting for social justice and housing rights. Despite facing rampant sexism and antisemitism, Adelson Siegel worked on anti-discrimination law cases, successfully arguing before the Supreme Court in cases related to national airlines and the regulated use of state funds for services in nonpublic schools. According to close friend and Indiana University law professor Florence Wagman Roisman, “She was doing civil rights work when it wasn’t fashionable and it wasn’t valued, except by the people who needed it.”

Lila Fenwick

Lila Fenwick ’53

In 1956, Fenwick became the first Black female graduate of Harvard Law School and was chief of the Division of Human Rights at the United Nations in the 1960s. At the U.N., she advocated for Indigenous, racial, gender-based, and religious rights. While Fenwick faced “a lot of resistance while [at Harvard] based on race and gender” — her cousin David Colby told the Harvard Law Bulletin — she flourished in her work in defense of human rights and as a door opener for other Black women. She reportedly wished to leave her estate to scholarships and academic programming that supports the achievements of Black women in higher education.

Ann Diggs Taylor

Anna Diggs Taylor ’54

Beyond her time on campus and, later, at Yale Law School, Diggs Taylor served an acclaimed six decades in the legal field. Diggs Taylor made history as the first Black woman to be appointed to the U.S. District Court as a federal judge in the Eastern District of Michigan. She demonstrated her commitment to social justice by working on such high-profile cases as the murder of Vincent Chin and the Bush administration’s wiretapping following the September 11 attacks. 

Judith Kaye ’58

Judith Kaye ’58

During the fall of 2008, Kaye returned to Barnard to give an address on campus, declaring, “For me, the greatest fortuity was coming here to Barnard College.” While that may have been an instance of fortuity, her impressive career was the result of dedication, hard work, and guiding principles. The Barnard Medal of Distinction recipient went on to become the first woman appointed to the New York Court of Appeals and the first woman to serve as chief judge for the state. Beyond her work on addiction issues, domestic violence, and mental health, she was a dedicated alumna who served on Barnard’s Board of Trustees. 

Susan Herman '68

Susan Herman ’68

Following an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Barnard, Herman served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for nearly 15 years. After working at the ACLU, Herman became a centennial professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and wrote extensively on matters of terrorism, human rights, women, and the erosion of civil liberties.

sheila abdus-salaam speaking at the Barnard podium

Sheila Abdus-Salaam ’74

At this year’s Sheila Abdus-Salaam ’74 Memorial Lecture, Barnard honored the pioneering judge’s life by inviting to campus her law school classmate — and the former U.S. Attorney General — Eric H. Holder. As the first Black woman to serve on the New York State Court of Appeals, Abdus-Salaam showed a commitment to equal opportunities and protection under the law, such as the 2016 groundbreaking decision to overturn a 25-year ruling that banned unmarried, nonbiological parents from having legal standing over children they were raising — directly affirming gay parenting. In 2012, Abdus-Salaam described what made her a good judge: “I think people consider me to be a judge who listens and gives them a fair shot.”

 Maria Foscarinis
Photo credit: Maria Foscarinis/Twitter

Maria Foscarinis ’77

With a decorated academic career as an adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School, Foscarinis began her legal career working in corporate law. She soon pivoted to working full time with homeless populations following pro bono work she did with families through the Litigation Group at Sullivan and Cromwell, and she founded the National Homelessness Law Center in 1989. “It seemed to me that the law involves basic issues of social justice and what the world should be like,” said Foscarinis. “At the same time, it provides tools for having an impact in the real world. Ideally, it could be a means of combining those two.”

Hillary Schneller headshot
Photo credit: Columbia Law School

Hillary Schneller ’09

As a legal scholar, Schneller has advocated fiercely for reproductive rights. The Barnard and Columbia Law School graduate currently teaches at Columbia as a lecturer in law, focusing on the intersections of law, sexuality, and gender. She also served as co-lead counsel in one of the most significant Supreme Court cases in 2022: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — in which she defended a woman’s legal right to abortion access.