Herma Hill Kay, 1934-2017

Influential Berkeley legal scholar remembered

July 20, 2017
Herma Hill Kay

A legal scholar who broke down barriers for women in academia and society has died.

Herma Hill Kay was born in Orangeburg, South Carolina in August 1934. At the beginning of secondary school, she made such an impression in a debate about the American Civil War that a teacher suggested she should go to law school. Although her mother was opposed to the idea, on the grounds that “girls can’t make a living as lawyers”, she was determined to prove her wrong and, after an undergraduate degree at Southern Methodist University (1956), enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School (1959).

In 1960, after working as a law clerk to California Supreme Court Justice Roger Traynor, Professor Kay was appointed assistant professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, where she would teach until her death 57 years later. She became professor of law in 1963 and eventually the Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong professor of law in 1996.

When she joined Berkeley, Professor Kay was only the second woman to work in the law faculty – and her lone predecessor had just announced plans to retire. She would serve as the school’s first female dean from 1992 to 2000 and helped to oversee a rise in the proportion of female students from a tiny minority to more than 50 per cent. She also helped to draft the California Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act of 1969, a pioneering no-fault divorce statute that was designed, she once said in an interview, “to try to get the blackmail out of divorce” and help to create a world where “marriage is no longer the only career open to women”.

Writings by Professor Kay included major works on sex-based discrimination, divorce, adoption, reproductive rights and diversity in legal education as well as a co-authored casebook, Sex-Based Discrimination (1974), now in its seventh edition. At the time of her death, she was finishing a book on female law professors in the United States, particularly the 14 who preceded her own arrival on the scene in 1960.

An inspiring mentor for younger women, Professor Kay established the Boalt Hall Women’s Association at Berkeley as a means of opening up professional opportunities that had hitherto been barred to them. In a tribute published in the California Law Review in 2016, Berkeley law professor and interim dean Melissa Murray noted: “In the late 1960s and 1970s, as a revolution in substantive sex equality was sweeping California, Herma was at its centre. She transformed the legal landscape of American family life.”

Professor Kay died in her sleep on 10 June and is survived by three sons and four grandchildren.


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