AMPLIFY: Jane Bolin
For wonderful profiles of women throughout history, I strongly recommend looking for a New York Times obituary. I believe I have cited a NYTobituary in multiple Amplify articles. In their obituary on this month’s Amplify feature, Judge Jane Bolin, NYTbeautifully illustrates both context and Judge Bolin’s influence on those who came after her:
“In her speech, Judge Motley said [of Judge Jane Bolin], ‘When I thereafter met you, I then knew how a lady judge should comport herself.’.
The ‘lady judge’ was frequently in the news at the time of her appointment with accounts of her regal bearing, fashionable hats and pearls. But her achievements transcended being a shining example. As a family court judge, she ended the assignment of probation officers on the basis of race and the placement of children in child-care agencies on the basis of ethnic background.” (3)
Many of our readers may be thinking, “Wait, I’ve already read about a family court judge”, and they are correct in that thought (also, thank you for being a consistent reader!). In November 2018, I wrote about Justine Wise Polier, the first woman justice in New York. It is by accident that I started writing about another woman judge, but I didn’t want to stop after I began researching Judge Bolin. It turns out that Judge Polier and Judge Bolin were colleagues. The most compelling part of her story is that she accomplished so much, all while she was told over and over that a black woman should not and could not be a lawyer, let alone a judge!
Jane Bolin was born on April 11, 1908 in Poughkeepsie, New York to Gaius Bolin and Matilda Emery. Her father, Gaius, was the first black person to graduate from Williams College and he had his own law practice (3). Because of his success, Bolin had a comfortable childhood and was inspired to be an attorney after being exposed to the beauty of his leather-bound books and the horror of the court cases they contained (3).
In a letter she wrote at the time of her retirement, she said “It is easy to imagine how a young, protected child who sees portrayals of brutality is forever scarred and becomes determined to contribute in her own small way to social justice” (3). When Bolin decided that she wanted to pursue a career as an attorney, her father initially advised against it. As far as we can tell, though, he accepted her career choice eventually; she was a clerk in his law office before she passed the New York bar exam in 1932 (1).
Bolin attended undergraduate school at Wellesley College, where she was one of only two black students (2) and graduated with honors in 1928 (4). While at Wellesley, Bolin faced discrimination and prejudice both inside the classroom, and socially. Her undergraduate advisor even discouraged her from applying to law school at all, but through this, Jane Bolin carried on (2).
While Wellesley was a women’s college, Yale Law is, of course, not, so Bolin was met with both racial and gender discrimination (2). In her class, she was one of three women and the only black students at Yale. In spite of the new set of challenges presented, Bolin was still the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law in 1931
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund and fellow Yale Law alumna, wrote a glowing column about Jane Bolin after her death. In it, Wright discusses her own experience at Yale Law:
“When I attended Yale Law School between 1960-1963, I certainly had only a taste of what Judge Bolin must have experienced. I experienced, with fellow Black women students like the late great Pauli Murray, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Jean Cahn, and Judge Inez Smith Reed, exclusion from the Law School dormitories. We either had to stay in town or in the one segregated women’s graduate dorm. But we had each other and a handful of other Black women students in other Yale Graduate School departments” (2).
After graduating from Yale and passing the bar, Bolin married Ralph Mizelle and the two opened a law firm together (1). By 1937, Bolin was named the Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of New York, serving on the Domestic Relations Court (1). While in this position, she worked with private employers to hire new employees based on merit, instead of discriminating against qualified black candidates (4). Two years later, at the age of 31, Mayor LaGuardia appointed her as Judge of the Domestic Relations Court. LaGuardia asked her to the New York City Building at the World’s Fair and Bolin was concerned she was being called there only to be reprimanded, but instead she was sworn in (3). Judge Bolin served as judge for 40 years, until she reached the mandatory retirement age. Bolin was not pleased with this requirement, claiming that she was being kicked out of her job (3).
During Judge Bolin’s time on the Domestic Relations Court (later known as the Family Court), her son Yorke Bolin Mizelle was born in 1931, her first husband Ralph died in 1943, she remarried in 1950 to Walter P. Offutt Jr and he died in 1974 (3, 4). She was re-appointed to her position by three New York City mayors to ten-year terms. While she was serving as a judge, she chose not to wear robes because she wanted the children involved in the court cases she was overseeing to feel comfortable and at ease (3). Along with two other judges, one of whom was Justine Wise Polier, Bolin made positive changes for children of color; the first was that probation case officers would no longer be assigned with race of the child as a factor and the second being that publicly-funded private childcare agencies could no longer deny children access on the basis of their ethnic background (2). After her retirement, Bolin served on the New York City University Board of Regents. She was also on the board of the NAACP (2) and was a member of the National Urban League and the Child Welfare League (1). She was also involved in a number of other organizations that focused on the advancement of people of color until her death in 2007.
After writing these articles for a while, calling women the first this or that can almost become fatiguing. Especially when you’re writing about women from more recent history. It is important to remember that, while it might seem like progress to downplay these First Women, their stories do hold an important place between the ribs of women who look like them or have similar stories. It is doubly as important to celebrate the women who come after them as well. While we all understand the gravity of being the first woman to accomplish something, or being the first person of color. Moving forward with Amplify, I hope to do a better job at focusing on the women who’ve come second, or third. Or the women who have done incredible things because of the women who blazed the trail.
As always, I leave you, dear reader, with an open invitation for feedback. Suggestions, criticisms, questions, corrections - I want it all! I’m trying to help educate the HerStry community on the badass women of our past, but I still have a lot to learn myself.
Judge Jane Bolin’s Timeline:
1908 - Born April 11 in Poughkeepsie, NY
1928 - Graduates from Wellesley College with honors
1931 - Graduates with J.D. degree from Yale
1932 - Works in her father’s law office as a clerk until she passes the bar
1933 - Marries Ralph Mizelle and they open a law firm together
1937 - Named Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of New York, serving on the Domestic Relation Court
1939 - Named Judge of the Domestic Relations Court by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia
1941 - Son, Yorke Bolin Mizelle, is born
1943 - Husband Ralph dies
1950 - Marries Walter P. Offutt Jr.
1974 - Husband Walter dies
1979 - Retires due to mandatory retirement age
2007 - Bolin dies in New York City on January 11
Ashlee lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is an Illinois native - grew up in the Chicago suburbs, went to school at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, and lived in the city of Chicago up until 2015. In June 2015, she packed up with her partner and moved to the city she has absolutely fallen in love with, Pittsburgh! When she's not at work, she can typically be found in yoga class, working on the next edition of AMPLIFY, cuddling with George the cat, or enjoying trying to figure out what next home improvement task she is going to take on. Follow her nonsense on Twitter: @trashleeinpgh