Professor Langdell vs. the Feminine Mind

“Journey with our Fearless Explorer into the carnivorous depths of the Feminine Mind!” (A still from Nara Denning’s film, “Neurotique.” Image and review found at The Moving Arts Film Journal,

“[T]he law is entirely unfit for the feminine mind—more so than any other subject . . . .”

—Professor Christopher Langdell (as attributed by Charles W. Eliot).

See Bruce A. Kimball and Brian S. Shull, The Ironical Exclusion of Women from Harvard Law School, 1870-1900,  58 J. Legal Educ. 26 (2008).

Professor Langdell is well-known as the progenitor of modern legal education and a chief proponent of using the Socratic method in law school classrooms.  Perhaps less well-known is that, as evidenced by the statement above, Langdell considered women to be constitutionally unfit for the study and practice of law.  This is the central revelation of Bruce Kimball and Brian Shull’s article, “The Ironical Exclusion of Women from Harvard Law School,” cited above.

The question: What is the significance of this concurrence of influence and belief system in such a pivotal figure?

First, to examine Langdell‘s influence on legal education.  On the one hand, while it would be difficult to overstate the impact of Langdell on the controlling model for legal education, it is also possible that we take it for granted, precisely because Langdell’s vision has for so long been the norm.  See id. at 3 (noting that Langdell was chiefly responsible for developing the model of professional education at Harvard Law School “that became normative in the United States during the Twentieth Century.”).

To fully appreciate Langdell’s innovation, we must consider the model that it replaced.  Kimball and Shull describe the manner in which Langdell’s vision of legal education—animated by a robust if flawed theory of meritocracy—represented a radical departure from the so-called “gentlemanly” model of professional education that precede it.

In short, under the “gentlemanly” model, “access to education depended on the personal relationships developed among gentleman.”  Id. at 9.  As such, this model “incorporated manifest discrimination,”  id., in that it openly sought to replicate the existing structures of social and economic privilege.

By contrast, under Langdell’s meritocratic model, advancement in the profession depended on the relative strength of one’s academic performance, objectively measured.  In a meritocracy, “students and faculty would be uniformly evaluated by explicit, objective standards, salient to the profession, rather than by irrelevant, personal characteristics, such as social background.”  Id. at 7.

For those concerned about equality of opportunity, Langdell’s meritocratic model seems to clearly represent a move in the right direction.  And indeed, under this meritocratic approach, Harvard Law School admitted men from different racial, social and economic backgrounds, permitting them to prove themselves on equal footing with others.   See id. at 7-8.

But Professor Langdell, along with many of his generation, had a sizable blind spot in his theory of meritocracy.  Namely this: He considered women to be presumptively disqualified for the study of law.  Kimball and Shull describe how Langdell repeatedly thwarted the efforts of individual women seeking admittance to the law school.  As time went on, Langdell was increasingly in the minority in holding this view, but held disproportionate influence such that his view prevailed.

On the record, true to his nature, Langdell supported this decision on purely formalistic grounds.  Indeed, in response to the first application for admission by a woman, Langdell essentially abstained on grounds of lack of justiciability: “Declin[ing] to express an opinion—the question not being before us.”  Id. at 18.  In a subsequent debate, Langdell drafted a well-reasoned memorandum submitting eight practical and precedential reasons for the law school continuing in its policy of excluding women.  See id. at 21-22.

Off the record, it was a different story.  According to the accounts collected by Kimball and Shull, in his oral comments on the issue, Langdell stated that “the law is entirely unfit for the feminine mind—more so than any other subject” and that women’s role in the law should be confined to performing clerical work.  Id. at 26.

So here we have it.  The father of legal education pitting himself categorically against the feminine mind.

Christopher Columbus Langdell


A lovely woman.

In my view, there is not much either “ironic” or “ironical” about Langdell’s position.  It is not surprising that a man of his time would hold such views about women.  Nor is it surprising that he would fail to see any contradiction between these views and his commitments to equality, individual merit, and fairness.

As many theorists have noted, notions of equality almost inevitability have a dark underbelly.  Equality is and always has been for “us,” and “we” are a group that necessarily must be defined and understood in contrast to a lesser, undeserving “them.”  What changes over time is who is placed in which category.

Thus, in the context of Langdell’s vision of legal education, meritocracy was a proving ground for men, regardless of social, racial, or economic background.  But this arena of intellectual jousting was obviously reserved for those equipped to its demands.  This point—that the requirements of competitive meritocracy were excrutiatingly demanding—was underscored (rather than contradicted by) the exclusion of women, who by definition lacked the intellectual qualities to engage in a vigorous, “manly” combat of ideas.  See id. at 29 (describing the Victorian ideal of manhood that developed in response to a perceived feminization of men).

Casting this ideal of intellectual combat in gendered terms is neither far-fetched nor invented.  Harvard President Charles Eliot argued that scholarly competition promoted “masculinity,” a new word entering the language at this time.  “Scholarly manliness” –achievement in a competitive academic system—was thus officially promoted as the means by which Harvard would build an ‘aristrocracy’ that was also ‘democratic’ in admitting students from any social or economic backgrounds.  Id. at 29.  (As an aside: The very notion of a “democratic aristocracy” is one to puzzle over.)

But it is not interesting to me that Langdell possessed the views about women that he did; this is, in fact, entirely predictable.  The interesting question, in my view, is whether our contemporary model of legal education continues to quietly incubate an ideal of “manliness” and disdain for the “feminine mind” that might not comport with our other professed values.


13 responses to “Professor Langdell vs. the Feminine Mind

  1. but your question leads inevitably to the question: what do you mean when you say “feminine mind?” is there such a thing? are there gendered ways of thinking?

    • susannahpollvogt

      Absolutely fair, although I think the question really is, “What did Langdell mean when he referred to the ‘feminine mind'”? From the context I think we can assume he meant the mind of any female, and that he did believe there were gendered ways of thinking. The remaining question of whether there is still any traction to this notion is, to say the least, a complicated one! Thanks for your comment.

  2. not to beat a dead horse here, but since the one testable aspect of langdell’s definition of ‘the feminine’ mind — its suitability for legal education — is demonstrably false, i’d like for us to agree on some other definition for purposes of this discussion.

    the main question you ask is a good one, and rings the theme of legal education as a mind-shaping process that is more welcoming of some personality/mind types than others. i think a discussion that pinpoints how particular aspects of legal education tend to privilege a dominant-culture masculine mind (as opposed to all the other types of minds) would be interesting and informative.

    it can hardly be disputed that traditional legal education is ‘gendered’ and masculine, even in the absence of definitions for masculine and feminine minds. after all it was created and policed by men such a langdell and closed to females and any other types of non-dominant culture male minds until only recently.

    • susannahpollvogt

      Thanks for your comment – beat away! It’s an intriguing issue. But I’m not willing to agree to your premise that we need to come up with another definition for “the feminine mind.” Langdell obviously took a blunt, essentialist approach to the question and this is at least part of the flaw in his reasoning.

      I don’t think it is unimaginable that we could map out characteristics that were somewhat correlated to being male v. female, or masculine v. feminine, but any such characterization would necessarily be inaccurate and partial.

      Instead, what I would like to look at are the general mechanisms of exclusion and differentiation at work in Langdell’s position. Under this approach, the idea of masculinity matters less for its content (e.g., prioritizing zero-sum competition) and more for its modality (defining educational ideals in contrast to a set of qualities said to be embodied by an “other”—here, women.

  3. I truly wish I could say this surprises me, but it does not. I believe that women fight a greater battle in professions that are supposedly based on logic and traditionally do not have empathy or emotion associated with them.

  4. Interesting related read

  5. i guess my horse-beating is based on my hesitance to adopt any sort of definitional boundaries on what a feminine or masculine mind might be. plus, i’m not certain that i can pinpoint any specific intellectual traits that i would identify as representative of my male law school colleagues that are different from traits among the females in my class. but maybe i just haven’t been paying attention.

    i’m also interested in where one draws the line between exclusion and differentiation that are attributable to gender stereotyping and the same tools that are an apparently necessary part of professional training. by that i mean that law school necessarily sets up a system where values/abilities/attributes that are consistent with the institution’s idea of a good lawyer are rewarded and those that are inconsistent are discouraged.

    to the extent we are not advocating the removal of all such methods of training lawyers when we talk about “humanizing law school” (a goal i that i support) , it would seem necessary to apply some sort of sieve that lets us sift out the ones aimed at producing professionals and the ones that are nothing more than tools of oppression.

    in my law school experience, the professors who were the worst socratic hazers always claimed to be “training legal minds” in the tradition of john houseman in “the paper chase,” when what we all suspected was that they were just engaging in pointless and sadistic games for their own amusement.

    • susannahpollvogt

      I think your hesitation is understandable. Very good points—I hope that my next post might take some of them up.

  6. It seems to me that the most intriguing aspect of this conversation is not the actual “feminine mind” or “masculine mind” but is instead the optimal mind that Professor Langdell believed in. This is important because he built legal education to suit this “mind..” So what did Langdell see in the “feminine” mind that he wanted to reject, and does that have any ramifications in the way our legal educational system works now? and how bout the actual legal system?

    This blog post is such a nice beginning to an intriguing investigation.

  7. Professor Pollvogt,

    Your loyal fans are itching for an update! Hope the semester is treating you well,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s