Old Yale

Yale’s first female graduate

The Law School’s first female graduate talked her way in—35 years before other women were admitted.

Judith Ann Schiff is chief research archivist at the Yale University Library.

American Women (Mast, Crowell, & Kirkpatrick, 1897)

American Women (Mast, Crowell, & Kirkpatrick, 1897)

Alice Rufie Jordan Blake 1886LLB earned entrance to Yale through remarkable academic achievement—and grit. View full image

The story people at Yale think they know about the very first woman to graduate from the university might not be true. This magazine, among others, has published the account that Alice Rufie Jordan Blake 1886LLB gained admission to the Law School by listing her first initials instead of her first names on her application. Yale’s archives don’t document that claim. But there is much more to Blake’s story: her determination, her high qualifications for admission, and the support of the Yale law faculty despite the administration’s opposition.

Rufie Jordan, as she was originally named, was born in 1864, grew up in Michigan, and entered the University of Michigan at 16—the youngest student ever in her course of study. After earning her bachelor’s degree in 1884, she entered the university’s law school. At the end of her first year, she passed the exam and was admitted to practice law in the state. Having achieved at the age of 20 far more than most American women and men of her time, Miss Jordan set a new educational goal to assure her future success in the law. She applied to Columbia’s law school, but was refused admission because of her sex. Then she applied to Harvard and was refused, she recounted later, with still more hostility. Next, she approached Yale.

The precedents were not favorable. In 1872, George Sill ’52 had written law professor Simeon E. Baldwin ’61, ’62Law, to ask if a woman who wanted to study law in his office might attend the school for a year. “In theory I am in favor of their studying & practicing law,” Sill wrote, “provided they are ugly, but I should fear a handsome woman before a jury.” Baldwin apparently favored women’s admission, but Yale president Noah Porter ’31 passed the request to the Corporation, Yale’s board. The woman was not admitted.

Jordan applied to Yale in person in the fall of 1885. Baldwin described the encounter in a 1923 interview published by the New Haven Register:

The startled registrar cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, but women are not admitted.”

“Why not?” The cool eyes rested upon him.

“Why—er—they never have been.”

“You’ll have to admit me,” the young woman put in grimly. “There isn’t a thing in your catalogue that bars women.”

Jordan was correct, Baldwin said. The rules stated: “Attorneys at law of any State are entitled to admission to the Senior Class without examination.”

Law School dean Francis Wayland admitted Jordan, but Porter, unconvinced, brought the matter to the Corporation. She was told she would not be listed in the catalog as a student and her tuition would be returned if she withdrew. Instead, with faculty support, she continued and passed her exams “with credit.” On June 28, the law degree candidates’ names, including Jordan’s, were presented to the Corporation. The list was approved. But the minutes note: “The Corporation hereby direct the following to be inserted as a note in future annual Catalogues or Statements.… It is to be understood that the courses of instruction [throughout Yale] are open to persons of the male sex only, except where both sexes are specifically included” (as in the art school).

After graduation, Jordan continued her studies in California for two years. In 1888, she married George D. Blake, who had also been a law student at Michigan, and they moved to Seattle. In 1890, The Green Bag, a magazine for lawyers, reported that when asked if she intended to practice law, she replied: “Yes; my husband is a lawyer, and the profession is to be our future life.” Sadly, her potential was not realized. She died on November 29, 1893, at 29.

Alice Rufie Jordan Blake remained the sole female graduate of the law school until 1920. Her name is on the list of women proposed by Yale’s Women Faculty Forum as namesakes for one of the planned new undergraduate residential colleges.

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