Barbara Babcock, a pioneering legal voice in women’s rights and criminal defense who became Stanford’s first female law professor 48 years ago, has died at age 81.
“She was a game-changer,” said LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County judge who started at the law school in 1971, a year before Babcock arrived.
Just ask Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
When President Jimmy Carter and his attorney general, Griffin Bell, were planning in 1979 to choose a woman for the powerful federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., they considered a variety of candidates before hearing, emphatically, from Babcock, then in charge of the Civil Division in Bell’s Justice Department.
One candidate stood out, she told them: Ginsburg, the prominent law professor and women’s rights advocate. As Babcock later recalled, she told her bosses that failing to choose “a woman who is so well qualified and more than any woman applicant in the country has paid her dues” would be “a slap in the face.”
Ginsburg was nominated and confirmed in 1980. In 1993, when President Bill Clinton was considering her for the Supreme Court, Babcock, who had returned to teaching law at Stanford, “was again in my corner from start to finish,” Ginsburg told a New York City bar association audience in December 2018. “I would not hold the good job I have today were it not for Barbara.”
Cordell entered Stanford Law School in 1971, the only black woman in her class, and was greeted by an all-male faculty. A year later, Babcock, since 1968 the founder and leader of one of the nation’s first federal public defender’s offices in Washington, D.C., left to become Stanford’s first female law professor.
“She joined the faculty, and the law school changed forever,” Cordell said. “She was a mentor to me throughout law school and after, up until the day she died.”
Babcock, also an early leader of the pioneering feminist nonprofit Equal Rights Advocates, died of cancer at her Stanford home on April 18.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1938, Babcock graduated from Yale Law School with honors and worked for a law firm, but was drawn to public service and moved to Washington’s Legal Aid Agency in 1966. That was only three years after the Supreme Court had ruled that the government must provide a lawyer to criminal defendants who could not afford one, and Babcock soon saw that Legal Aid was functioning as a “guilty plea mill,” as she told Stanford Lawyer magazine in 2016.
So she applied to become the director of the renamed Public Defender’s office, at $16,000 a year — not enough to raise a family but worth the sacrifice, she told the magazine — and soon upgraded its policy and prestige, assigning a lawyer to every client and adding social workers to the staff. Meanwhile, she taught a class on “Women and the Law” at nearby Georgetown University, one of the first U.S. legal courses on the burgeoning feminist movement, and another at Yale, before heading to Stanford in 1972.
“There was this surge of people, of women, in law school,” Babcock recalled in the Stanford Lawyer interview. “They were really different from my generation — all we tried to do was not be noticed and to assimilate. But they didn’t. They said, ‘What is this? You got us here and nobody pays any attention to us, and there are no women professors!’”
“It was a conservative, all-male faculty and she pushed for changes within the law school, curriculum, hiring. She made big changes,” said now-retired U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who had become the school’s first assistant dean for minority admissions in 1968. He said he and Babcock — “she’s such a force of nature” — remained close friends, and she supplied him with his best law clerks after Carter appointed him to the bench in 1980.
About a year after Babcock arrived at Stanford, a group of women lawyers started Equal Rights Advocates, one of the nation’s first feminist legal organizations. Babcock joined its board of directors — along with another pioneer, the late Herma Hill Kay, who later became the nation’s first female law school dean at UC Berkeley — secured critical funding, and helped the nonprofit become a leading voice against sex discrimination.
As a new professor, Babcock “was putting her professional reputation on the line,” recalled one of the group’s founders, Nancy Davis, now a retired San Francisco Superior Court judge. She said Babcock organized a clinic for law students who worked on the cases and videotaped sample cases, a project that also involved future California Chief Justice Rose Bird, then a Santa Clara County public defender.
It was also a time when female attorneys had to wear dresses in court, said Equal Rights Advocates’ current executive director, Noreen Farrell. She said Babcock recalled the single, loose dress left hanging in the closet for each advocate to don before heading to court on her own — “the infamous suit of gender justice.”
Babcock was “a brilliant, charismatic, extraordinarily accomplished, extremely funny woman … who was dedicated to advancing equality for those whom society labels as the least among us,” said the organization’s current board chair, Drucilla Ramey. Henderson also joined its board, the only male member, before his judicial appointment.
After three years as an assistant attorney general in Carter’s Justice Department, Babcock returned to Stanford in 1980, assisted on the law school’s first clinic in a low-income neighborhood, and remained a professor until her retirement in 2004. She wrote a 2011 book, “Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz,” about the woman who became California’s first licensed female attorney in 1878, and a 2016 memoir, “Fish Raincoats: A Woman Lawyer’s Life.”
Babcock, whose first marriage ended in divorce, is survived by her second husband, Thomas Grey; stepdaughter Rebecca Grey, a granddaughter and two brothers. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Equal Rights Advocates.
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