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Judge Barbara Lynn epitomizes hard-fought gains for women

A look at how a U.Va. alumna paved the way for women on Grounds as the University prepares to celebrate the 50th reunion of the University’s first coeducated class

<p>As she prepares to attend the Class of 1974’s reunion in May, Lynn continues to be a ceaseless public servant, skilled judge and supportive mentor.</p>

As she prepares to attend the Class of 1974’s reunion in May, Lynn continues to be a ceaseless public servant, skilled judge and supportive mentor.

It is impossible to paint a complete picture of Class of 1973 alumna Barbara Lynn without talking about all the “firsts” she forged. Admitted in 1970 to the University’s first fully-coeducated class, Lynn earned her degree in three years and paved a path for female students on Grounds. As she prepares to celebrate the 50th reunion of the University’s first fully-coeducated class of graduates, Lynn continues to be a trailblazer in the legal field, ensuring diverse, passionate voices are welcome at the table.

Hailing from Miami, Lynn did not see the University until her first academic semester because her parents could not afford a visit to Grounds before she enrolled. She was one of 450 women admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences in 1970, each of whom were carefully selected by the then Dean of Admissions Ernest Ern. 

Recalling a luncheon with Ern that she attended as an alumna, Lynn said Ern pointed out a single characteristic that he had looked for when selecting the first class of women — grit.  

“That wasn't a term that was used very much then,” Lynn said. “I really appreciated that he was trying to construct a class of women who were resilient — who could put up with some barriers and unhappiness with their just being there.”

Grit propelled Lynn forward as she overcame institutional, gender-based discrimination and pursued entry into male-dominated student organizations. In particular, she set out to join the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, an almost 200-year-old organization whose past members include Edgar Allan Poe and Woodrow Wilson. 

“It was very scary and intimidating,” Lynn said. “But I found out that if I wanted to be in some organizations that I was interested in, I had to make them admit me.”  

As a nationally-ranked extemporaneous speaker in high school, Lynn sought to continue her passion for public speaking through the Society. However, the organization’s bylaws stated that only men could be granted membership. Undeterred, Lynn found a loophole in the bylaws’ terminology that guaranteed her an interview with the Society.

“In another part of the bylaws, it provided that all applicants for membership would be interviewed … It used the word ‘applicants,’” Lynn said. “I qualified as an applicant, so I applied.”

The Society did not grant her membership, but Lynn persisted and applied again the following semester. Meanwhile, she attended meetings and spoke at them when recognized, gaining club-wide acclaim in the process. She described how, each time she interviewed to be a member, she faced crude questions intended to deter her from coming back.

“When I came back [to interview] the second and the third time, I would comment at the end, ‘Wow, I really am disappointed. The questions you asked me today were offensive but not nearly as offensive as last semester,’” Lynn said. “That would make [the interviewers] mad.”

The switch flipped in the spring of 1972. Mike Lynn, Barbara Lynn’s boyfriend at the time and now husband of 50 years, was the vice president of the Society. When the president and other more conservative members of the club left to celebrate Mardi Gras, Mike Lynn assumed the position of Acting President and mustered up a quorum in their absence. He then called a spontaneous special session and the Society voted to coeducate. 

Upon their return, the more conservative members of the club were appalled at the changes but were powerless to revoke them. Lynn subsequently became the first female member of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society. Today, Lynn’s portrait hangs at the entrance of Jefferson Hall, serving as a reminder of her valiant efforts to integrate female voices into traditionally male spaces.

After graduating summa cum laude from the University, Lynn graduated at the top of her law school class at Southern Methodist University. Despite her successes, gender inequities persisted in her field. She explained how she and many high-achieving women in her law school class were met with crass questions about balancing her work and personal life. 

“People were asking us sexist questions,” Lynn said. “‘How are you going to be a lawyer and have dinner on the table when your husband gets home from work?’ and ‘Are you going to promise you're not going to have children?’”

On top of inappropriate interviews, Lynn said some of her female classmates were denied jobs at Dallas law firms upon graduation, despite being qualified for the positions. In response, Lynn and her classmates hired a young law professor to be their lawyer and filed lawsuits against five Dallas firms. Lynn looks back on the moment with pride. 

“It was an important demonstration to the community that we were not going to be treated badly because of our gender,” Lynn said.

After starting her career, Lynn continued to chart a path of “firsts.” She became the first female associate — and subsequent partner — at her law firm, Carrington Coleman. After 23 years in private practice, she entertained the possibility of being a judge. While she expressed her love for the law, she said she could not turn down the call to public service. 

“I would cap off my career by doing that,” Lynn said. “[The vacancy] came out of the clear blue sky.”

She became the first female chief judge in Texas and, after the COVID-19 lockdown, the first judge in Texas to open up her trial court. In addition to her work as the Senior Judge of the Northern District of Texas, Lynn currently serves as the President of the American Inns of Court, an association of lawyers, judges and other legal professionals who share a passion for professional excellence in the legal field.

Lynn’s path is a storied one, and it is filled with love for her alma mater. In her office, among letters of recognition from the Supreme Court and pictures with United States presidents, she has a framed image of the Rotunda. She speaks fondly of her memories in Charlottesville — the now-closed Lord Hardwicke’s all-you-can-eat salad bar, late nights at The White Spot Restaurant and suitemates whom she is still friends with today.

“Tell me to hop on a plane to Charlottesville tomorrow, and I’ll do it,” Lynn said. “I love that place.”

As she prepares to attend the Class of 1974’s reunion in May, Lynn continues to be a ceaseless public servant, skilled judge and supportive mentor. She is a trailblazer in the legal profession, creating spaces for women where their entry has been previously denied. At the heart of her journey, she carries an unshakable belief in the importance of inclusivity, describing it as integral to learning how to live. 

“I am of the view — speaking as a person, not as a judge — that having people with diverse experiences in all aspects of your life is a very good and positive thing,” Lynn said. “You learn a lot by associating with people who are not exactly like you.”


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