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Alice Rufie Jordan Blake Was Yale's First Female Graduate

She wanted to attend law school, despite the barriers.

portrait of alice jordan blake in front of books
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  • Photo Credit: Ed Robertson / Unsplash and Wikipedia

Women’s History Month may be over, but that doesn’t mean anyone should cease celebrating the ingenious ways women of the past bypassed prejudices and pushed through progress. One such women was American lawyer Alice Rufie Jordon Blake (1864-1893), and in her short lifetime she managed to snag herself a law degree from Yale. She was the first woman to receive a degree from that school, and it was an uphill battle. 

Jordon originally hailed from Norwalk, a busy and bustling tourist city in Ohio, and she seemed to have adopted her birthplace’s restless energy from the beginning. She was a brilliant student, driven to excel and prove herself worthy of recognition, and when she was only 16 years old she was admitted to the University of Michigan’s prestigious literature program. She was the youngest ever applicant to be accepted into the program. 

Under this intense curriculum, rife with the outputs of classic English-language authors, Jordon seemed well set up for a sparkling career as a writer. Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) of the previous generation had already paved the way for American women in journalism, and there were plenty of opportunities to write articles and essays for the many periodicals that were circulating the States at the time. 

But Jordon eventually realized that her mind was more inclined to law than to literature, and four years later, when she was 20 years old, she got into the University of Michigan’s Law School. The state laws permitted female students to study this practice, and study she did. She successfully passed the court test and became qualified to practice law, but only within the state of Michigan. 

According to the Supreme Court of the United States’ official website, women infiltrating the field of law was a fairly new phenomenon in the country at the time and restrictions barred them from gaining too much confidence and eyeing the White House: “It was not until the 1840s, during westward expansion of the country, that women began to qualify by ‘reading law’ and providing legal services at the city and county levels, even without formal admission to a state or territorial bar.” 

Jordon had stepped onto unsteady ground here, and seemed to have found her footing. But despite these outstanding accomplishments, Jordon wasn’t satisfied. Despite the rampant misogyny, she was eager to raise her law-practicing qualifications as high as they could go. Getting into even higher education was for Jordan a frustrating and sneaky operation. Most of the major Ivy League schools in the late 19th century were male-only and unwilling to budge. 

Both Columbia Law School and Harvard Law School outright rejected Blake when she applied to them, on the basis of her gender. Her excellent resume meant nothing. She was a woman, and therefore she simply couldn’t enroll. Jordon refused to give up. She pulled a trick to make her dream a reality. Her next move was to apply to Yale University using only her initials, essentially disguising herself as a male applicant and fooling the administration office. 

The male moniker for women in the world of academia has always been an effective and clever cheat code for success. The British sister-author trio, the Bronte sisters, got their novels published under male pennames, as did Mary Ann Evans, who published everything she wrote under the name George Eliot. Louisa May Alcott, the American author famous for Little Women, didn’t put her own name on her first writings when they were brought out, but rather employed the gender-neutral pseudonym A. M. Barnard. 

Two women, Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Cooper, shared the male name Michael Field to publish intellectual poetry and plays. Swiss writer Isabelle Eberhardt took it a step further and lived as a man, going under the name Si Mahmoud Saadi and producing exciting short stories about all the new life experiences she had access to. None of it was ever considered fraud, or lying. It was all just stepping stones for these women in establishing the careers they really wanted, rather than the traditionally "feminine” roles society dictated to them. They were “do what it takes” situations. Jordon understood that. 

Jordon did not go as far as to dress up in male clothing and operate as a man while studying at Yale. The camouflage was only necessary to get her through the application process. Once she was in, she was in, and Yale University was forced to let her pursue her desired degree at the risk of looking foolish. Unlike Columbia and Harvard, Yale did not offically have sexist rules on the books to exclude interested female students, and to block Jordon would have exposed their lack of organization and invited an embarrassing media frenzy. 

Nevertheless, the school did try to stop Jordon from registering when she arrived for the first day of classes, but it had no legal basis to do so. Jordon was allowed to stay and study. Law professor Simeon E. Baldwin transcribed the scene of Jordon’s confrontation with the registrar in a 1923 article for 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.”

The victorious Jordon, who swept right past that flustered clerk that day, collected her bachelor’s in law from Yale in 1886. Her list of achievements were long, but her life was tragically cut short. She married George D. Blake, a fellow law student, in 1888, and was prepared to tackle professional and domestic life with him as a power couple. But she died in Chicago in 1893 at the age of 29. Still, her life was a triumph. She was living proof to the next generation of women that a future in law was accessible with a bit of grit and determination.  

Featured image: Ed Robertson / Unsplash