Leadership Through Giving

Passionately advancing women’s legal issues

Karen O’Connor ’76

“My ideal person is somebody who is interested in working in a nonprofit that specializes in women and the law.” Karen O’Connor ’76

On the first UB School of Law paper she ever wrote, Karen O’Connor ’76 remembers, she got a D.

That was a new experience – she had sailed through Buffalo State College as a political science major. “No matter what I wrote, I got an A,” O’Connor says. “But it was very different in the UB School of Law. You couldn’t just write something and hand it in, you had to write it and rewrite it and rewrite it.” So she did, and ended up earning an H – the top grade – in Professor Lester Mazor’s class.

She also had to buy a new typewriter, a Smith-Corona with a correction cartridge. Rewriting meant a whole lot of retyping. Those were different days.

O’Connor has done a lot of writing since then. As the Jonathan N. Helfat Distinguished Professor of Political Science at American University, in Washington, D.C., she is well-known for her widely used textbook American Government: Roots and Reform and dozens of other books and articles on topics in political science and women’s studies. Her teaching consists largely of courses and seminars on women and politics.

“I really had no intention of being a lawyer,” O’Connor says. “I wanted to come back and work on the Hill, but I realized that as a woman I would have to have a law degree. To be taken seriously, you needed an advanced degree.” So concurrently with her law courses she worked toward a Ph.D. in political science from UB, which she earned in 1979. Now O’Connor has made a major donation to the UB School of Law to support students whose passions align with her own. Her pledge – a $25,000 gift plus a bequest of $500,000 – will establish a scholarship to benefit “deserving students, either female, or those interested in pursuing advancements for women through the law.”

“My ideal person is somebody who is interested in working in a nonprofit that specializes in women and the law,” she says. “Or it could be someone interested in going into family law. Women are at a real disadvantage in many divorce cases because they don’t have control of the money in the household.” The scholarship will be named after her hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg, justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, whom O’Connor met during research for a book on the high court.

“I was so appreciative of the support I got from the law school during my time there,” says O’Connor, who as a Baldy Fellow was able to work on her doctoral dissertation without the need to serve as a teaching assistant. She graduated debt-free. “And the quality of the faculty was fantastic. As a future teacher, I appreciated what they were doing.”

Not that it was always smooth sailing. O’Connor remembers getting a call from Professor Marjorie Girth – during Christmas vacation, no less – telling her that she’d have to rewrite, and retype, a 120-page paper because she had mixed up “which” and “that.” “I was furious,” O’Connor says. “But I did it. And now, with my own students, I’m the crazy lady with the whiches and thats. My students compete to see who has the most purple pen on their paper. I always tell them, I am the highest-priced editor you will ever get.” No one has to retype anymore, of course. And the world has changed in other, more significant ways. O’Connor recalls the casual sexism of the ’70s, when a professor writing a letter of recommendation would think nothing of commending her “great legs.” Maybe that makes even sweeter the accomplishments of her students, dozens of whom have gone on to responsible positions on Capitol Hill and other arenas of political power. She’s proud that 11 are working at EMILY’s List, which works to help pro-choice Democrats win election.

O’Connor sees in them some of the same confidence that she felt in her very last class at the UB School of Law, a course called Implementing the Equal Rights Amendment. “My transcript,” she says, “stands as a record of the optimism my generation had.”