Last month, Barbara Babcock, professor emerita at Stanford Law School, pioneer of the study of women in the legal profession and former public defender, passed away from breast cancer at the age of 81.
Babcock’s career was marked by her contributions to law and academia, her commitment to her students and her advancement of women and minorities within the legal profession. Babcock was a trailblazer in every sense of the word, and as women criminal defense attorneys, we have benefitted from her early efforts – both in terms of our own careers as women attorneys and her work to advance the rights of criminal defendants.
Before becoming the first female member of the Stanford Law faculty, Babcock served as the first director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (“PDS”), which was still a pilot program at the time that she joined in the 1960s. One of her colleagues at Stanford Law who also worked with her at PDS, Michael Wald, said of Babcock: “She built PDS into the best public defender office in the country.” While running the PDS office, Babcock continued to argue cases in court, in the spirit of a true defender.
In the late 1970s Babcock was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head the U.S. Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Civil Division. As head of DOJ’s Civil Division, Babcock advocated for the appointment of more female and minority judges. During Carter’s administration, she helped “appoint more women and minorities to the bench than all previous presidents combined,” including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg said of Babcock in 2018, “I would not hold the good job I have today if it were not for Barbara.”
At Stanford Law, she was the first female tenured faculty member and first female professor emeritus. She taught Stanford Law’s students for over 30 years. Babcock taught courses in Criminal Procedure, Civil Procedure and Criminal Law, as well as clinical courses. She was beloved by students and faculty members alike and was chosen by the graduating class four times to receive Stanford Law’s John Bingham Hurlbut Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Babcock was also an author. In 2011 she published Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz. Woman Lawyer tells the story of Clara Foltz, a late 19th and early 20th century lawyer and legal reformer, who conceived of public defenders. In 2016, Babcock published her memoir, Fish Raincoats: A Woman Lawyer’s Life.
Babcock was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Yale Law School. Before joining PDS, Babcock was an associate at Williams & Connelly, and clerked for Judge Henry Edgerton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In lieu of flowers, her family has suggested a gift in her name to Equal Rights Advocates for those who wish to contribute in Babcock’s memory. To read more about Babcock’s life and legacy, read her obituary in the Stanford Lawyer; the anecdotes shared there about Babcock’s storytelling ability are both moving and inspiring.
Barbara Babcock was a true champion for women in the law long before supporting women was a movement or had a hashtag. Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” For those of us enjoying the fruits of Babcock’s lifelong work, the spirit of what Angelou meant is captured in honoring the extraordinary life of Barbara Babcock and what she has done for women in this field.