PUBLISHED:June 28, 2010

Duke Law remembers one of its first female graduates

One of Duke Law School’s first female graduates has died. Lee Smith McKeithen ’35, who joined classmate Elizabeth Lupton Peterson ’35 in becoming the first women to earn degrees from the Law School, died of natural causes at the age of 97 on June 21, 2010, in Albuquerque, N.M.

In addition to being one of the Law School’s first female graduates, McKeithen was the first woman admitted to the New York bar on motion in the First Judicial Department of New York State in 1940. Forty years later, at age 65, she became the first female partner at Cummings & Lockwood, one of Connecticut’s largest law firms. She passed the Connecticut bar shortly before her 60th birthday after having spent 35 years away from the legal practice while raising her four children. She was the oldest person to successfully sit for the Connecticut bar.

Duke Law Dean Justin Miller recruited McKeithen to the Law School following her graduation from Duke’s Woman’s College in 1932. She began her legal studies at age 19 and split a scholarship with another female student, one of six in the class. She passed the bar exam in 1934 following her second year of study.

“North Carolina the next year was going to put in more stringent requirements,” McKeithen recalled in a family recording. “They were going to make it tougher, so a bunch of us decided we would go and take the bar at the end of our second year. That was all that was required at that time, so we took it.”

McKeithen and Peterson were the only women to graduate with their class. McKeithan recalled in a 1997 Duke Law Magazine article that “the professors were no tougher on me than any of the men.” However, she added, “they did weed out the faint of heart.”

McKeithen argued multiple cases before the North Carolina Supreme Court while practicing at R.L. Smith & Sons in Albemarle and served as vice president of the North Carolina Bar Association in 1938. She moved to New York after marrying Edwin T. McKeithen Jr., the twin brother of one of her Duke Law classmates, in 1939. She continued to do appellate work in the North Carolina courts until her first child was born in 1941.

McKeithen was a longtime donor to the Law School. Her final visit to Duke came in 2003 for the graduation of her granddaughter, Emma McKeithen T’03.

Read McKeithen's obituary

View a photo gallery of McKeithen

Listen to McKeithen discuss being one of six female students at Duke Law and one of the first female graduates:

Listen to McKeithen discuss taking the bar exam after her second year in law school: