When Barack Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review, he faced a heated battle with the law school’s Women’s Law Association (WLA) because women comprised only 25% of the editors selected for the Review during his tenure.
At that time, the Review‘s president (with the help of two other editors) oversaw the selection of the new editors of the journal. All Harvard Law students were eligible to apply to the Review at the end of their first year by entering its writing competition, which involved editing an article and/or writing a case comment. New editors were chosen through one of three ways: through their writing competition scores; via a combination of 70% grades and 30% writing scores; or through a supplemental method that included affirmative action.
Obama sparked a heated controversy when 27 men, but only 9 women, were selected for the Review. He blamed the result on an insufficient number of women choosing to compete for editorial slots. The arithmetic flaw with Obama’s defense was that women were 40% of the Harvard Law class, 37% of the competitors, and yet only 25% of the editors Obama selected. Under the prior president of the Review (Peter Yu), women were also 37% of the writing competitors but were 41% of selectees. Under Obama’s successor (David Ellen), 37% of the new editors were women. Therefore, among these three successive male editors of the Review (two of whom were minorities), only Obama had a dramatic underrepresentation of women editors.
Reacting to the shortfall of new female editors, one of the co-chairs of the Women’s Law Association recommended that women should be included in the Review‘s affirmative action program. As quoted in the Harvard Law Record, the law school’s newspaper, Obama rejected that recommendation.
In response, the WLA co-chair said: “It disturbs me that there is this shortage this year and it is even more deeply disturbing if the people running Law Review don’t care enough to correct it.”
In rebuttal, Jim Chen, an executive editor of the Review under Obama, wrote a letter to the Harvard Law Record that objected to the WLA’s call to reinstate affirmative action for women at the Reivew. Chen wrote that such a suggestion was “bigotry and sexism” and that the “misguided Law Review editors who voted in the affirmative action plan” were “racist.” The co-chairs of the WLA responded by claiming that the Review‘s underrepresentation of females was a “disgrace” and attacking Chen for “buying into the language of the oppressor.”
Obama then responded with his own letter to the Harvard Law Record, in which he argued that including women in the Review‘s affirmative action program was “unnecessary.” He defended affirmative action policy in general, noting that he had “undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action programs.”
Perhaps some “binders full of women” would have helped.
Alan R. Lockwood is the author of Barack O’Liberal: The Education of President Obama.