Barbara Babcock, Stanford’s First Female Law Professor, Dies at 81


When President Jimmy Carter appointed Barbara Allen Babcock to head the Justice Department’s civil division in the late 1970s, he tasked her with increasing the number of women and minorities on the federal bench.

Among those she lobbied for was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a law professor, to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. But Griffin Bell, the attorney general, was not keen on Ms. Ginsburg.

“He was tired of hearing Ruth’s name,” Professor Babcock said in a 2018 speech at the New York City Bar Association. Besides, he had said, with so many more women becoming lawyers, it would be easy to find one to fill the vacancy.

“Women are not fungible,” Professor Babcock wrote to him in a blunt memo, adding: “For a very visible appointment that could lead to the Supreme Court, it has to be Ruth.” Not naming someone so well qualified who had also paid her dues, she said, would be “a slap in the face.”

Ms. Ginsburg was appointed, and always credited Professor Babcock.

“I would not hold the good job I have today were it not for Barbara,” Justice Ginsburg said at that same 2018 bar association event.

Professor Babcock lobbied successfully for many other women and minorities. And by the end of his term, President Carter had appointed more such judges than all previous presidents combined.

Professor Babcock, a trailblazer for women in the legal profession and the first female tenured faculty member at Stanford Law School, died on April 18 at her home in Stanford, Calif. She was 81.

Stanford University announced her death and said the cause was breast cancer.

In addition to advocating for women, she fought for poor defendants to have legal representation. In 1963, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, which required states to provide attorneys to criminal defendants who could not afford their own.

At the time, Professor Babcock, who initially wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer, was clerking for a federal judge and then went to work for Edward Bennett Williams, one of the nation’s most prominent criminal defense lawyers.

But the Gideon decision had forced every jurisdiction in the country to figure out how to provide lawyers to indigent defendants. Ms. Babcock left Mr. Williams’s high-powered firm and joined a pilot project at the Legal Aid Agency for the District of Columbia. That evolved into Washington’s Public Defender Service, of which she became the first director.

Even as she was running the public defender office, she continued to argue cases in court.

“If you want to lead, you have to be in the trenches,” she said in a 2007 oral history for the American Bar Association’s Women Trailblazers in the Law Project. “You can’t tell people to do things if you aren’t willing to do them yourself.”

Barbara Allen Babcock was born on July 6, 1938, in Washington. Her mother, Doris (Moses) Babcock, was a homemaker. Her father, Henry Allen Babcock, was a lawyer and Southern raconteur from Arkansas who told his daughter stories that always ended with a lawyer saving the day. Little wonder that she settled on her vocation at an early age.

She grew up in Hyattsville, Md., and went to the University of Pennsylvania, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1960.

She knew she wanted to go to Yale Law School but did not know that it accepted only a handful of women each year. It was the only law school she applied to, and she became one of 13 women in a class of 175 people.

After graduating in 1963, she clerked for Judge Henry W. Edgerton on the D.C. court of appeals. She then worked for Mr. Williams and started teaching at Georgetown Law School.

So few women around the country were teaching law at the time that they all knew each other, she said in the 2018 bar association speech. This included Ms. Ginsburg, who was then at Rutgers Law School and interested in civil procedure; Ms. Babcock was still focused on criminal defense law.

“We didn’t set out to be feminists, much less feminist law professors,” Professor Babcock said. “Rather we fell into it, or we were pushed into it by our students,” who wanted courses on women and the law. She said they had no idea at the time that they were forming part of the second wave of feminism.

Stanford Law recruited her in 1972. Except for her leave of absence from 1977 to 1979 to work for President Carter, she taught there for more than 30 years. She received the John Bingham Hurlbut Award for excellence in teaching four times. She retired from teaching full-time in 2004 and became a professor emerita.

Her first marriage, to Addison Bowman, ended in divorce. She is survived by her husband, Thomas Grey; her stepdaughter, Rebecca Grey; a granddaughter and two brothers, David Henry Babcock and Joseph Starr Babcock.

While at Stanford she plunged into research on the history of women in the legal profession. Among her many published works were “Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz” (2011), a biography of California’s first woman lawyer, who conceived of the idea of public defenders, and “Fish Raincoats: A Woman Lawyer’s Life” (2016), a memoir.

Asked in the oral history if she had any regrets, she said no. “You always wish you could have been a better person,” she said, “but in my actual career choices, it makes a very coherent story.”

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