Caroline J. Cook graduated from Wellesley College in 1884 and taught Latin at Dana Hall from approximately 1891-1898. She graduated from Boston University of Law in 1899 and applied to Harvard Law School along with several other women. It was not uncommon at that time for law school graduates to apply to Harvard Law School in order to obtain a higher status degree.
In the late 1800s, C.C. Langdell, dean of Harvard Law School from 1870-1895, conceived of an admissions policy to the Law School based on a formal system of academic meritocracy. Women’s rights activists welcomed these changes feeling that women would be judged based on objective and verifiable standards. However, discrimination still occurred and the standards were not applied equally to all applicants. Women were identified as an anomalous group exempt to the standards of academic merit.
On Sept. 30, 1899 the Harvard Law School faculty heard Cook’s petition. With only 1 dissenting vote, the faculty endorsed Cook. A few weeks later Harvard President Charles Eliot met with the Corporation. Since the Corporation had founded Radcliffe in 1894 and supported the enrollment of women graduate students it seemed possible that they would agree with the faculty vote. Instead they denied Cook’s admission stating the Harvard was “not prepared to admit women to the instruction of the Law School” (qtd. in Kimball: 24). Harvard Law School did not accept women until 1950 when 14 students were admitted.
Cook was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1900 and went into private practice while teaching a class in legislative law at Wellesley College and business law and business methods at Simmons College. She became a prominent Massachusetts lawyer and was a member of many progressive associations on behalf of women and working class families. In 1912, she was the head of the Department of Law and Thrift of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union and for many years she was the chief inspector of Incorporated Charities of the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare. Cook was the first president of the Massachusetts Association of Women Lawyers.