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First Asian Woman

Q. Who was the first Asian woman to graduate from Boalt Hall? — M.B., Oakland

A. Your question is difficult to answer, because the law school has not kept records by gender or by race.  In 1903 Motoyuki Negoro, from Japan, was one of three men to receive the first LL.B. law degrees granted by Berkeley (and in 1908 he returned to receive a J.D.), but it appears Asian women—with one tantalizing exception—did not enroll in Boalt Hall until rather late in our history.

To identify alumni by race or gender simply by consulting lists of graduates is problematic.  One of our early (1917) women graduates was named James M. Perry.  We would have been completely unaware of her gender except that we received a reference question from a scholar writing her biography.

It appears from available records that the first Asian woman to graduate from Boalt Hall was Mildred Yit-Kwai Lau, a member of the Class of 1963.   In the latest alumni directory she is listed as Mildred Lau Wheeler, who retired after practicing for many years in Hawaii. 

But she is not the first Asian woman to enroll in law school at Berkeley. A newspaper clipping from 1914 has the eye-catching headline, “Chinese Girl Studying, First Woman Lawyer.”  The article goes on to say:

The republic of China is soon to have its first woman lawyer. Her name is Miss Yarlock Lowe, and she is being trained in her profession at the University of California.

She is one of the few women studying Coke and Blackstone, is regularly enrolled in the school of jurisprudence, attends the lectures on law and digs daily in the big university Doe library.

Miss Lowe is not daunted by the fear that feminism is still too revolutionary for China.  She believes that the ancient nation has need of active educated women as well as capable men for leaders, and that in law especially there is opportunity for service and a bright career in her ancestral land.

“I am a prelegal student now,” Miss Lowe said.  “I intend to take the full law course and when it is completed I may have an office in San Francisco for a short time. But that will be only for experience.”

“I shall return to China.  There is, so far as I know, no woman lawyer in the whole nation.  But women are becoming lawyers in America.  The University of California has graduated a few. And I think a woman can serve equally well in China.”

“That country, as the world knows, is awakening. It is for the lawyers of China to help in the remaking of the nation; in shaping new laws and enforcing them, and in protecting the interest of the Chinese people while making China a nation of influence in the world.”

Miss Lowe lives in Benvenue avenue, Oakland, just across the city line from Berkeley.  She is thoroughly occidental in her dress and speech.  But she had not acquired occidental frivolity.

“I have not even joined campus societies such as the Prelegal society, to which I might belong,” she said. “I fear that such things would interfere with my studies.  If one does society or has too many outside activities, it is easy to be flunked out of college; and I wish to end my work, so I can begin my profession.”

The newspaper article was reprinted in a number of sources, giving an idea of how very newsworthy was the topic of a Chinese women in an American law school in 1914.

An online search of Yarlock Lowe’s name pulls up a reference to a graduate of Oakland High School who was born on April 3, 1890 and died on August 27, 1967.  There are a few additional references, a slender thread that a biographer might well want to follow. 

Have a question?  Ask the Archivist: benemann@law.berkeley.edu

9/18/2012