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Jane M.G. Foster

A Careful, Humble Woman

Jane M.G. Foster
Jane M.G. Foster

Her name appears on the new addition to Myron Taylor Hall, on a law school scholarship fund, and designates an endowed professorship, as well. Who was Jane M.G. Foster?

Foster graduated from the Cornell Law School in 1918, one of just two women in the class. She graduated near the top of her class and was associate editor of the Cornell Law Quarterly. However, no law firm would hire her. The only offer she received upon her graduation was a job as a legal assistant with the New York City firm of Davies, Auerbach, and Cornell. She worked at Davies Auerbach until 1929, helping to restructure companies, and developing expertise in that area.

When Foster left the firm, Cornell Law School Dean Charles Burdick contacted many others on her behalf. One response, from a prominent New York City firm, was typical: "Here in this office we have steadfastly refused to take women on our legal staff, and I know that we will continue to adhere to that policy."

Foster had invested wisely, though; she held stock in companies such as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company--the company that was to become IBM. She continued to live in Brooklyn Heights, and focused her considerable legal and business skills on the affairs of her friends, her community, Cornell Law School, and her own growing financial interests. In the 1950s, she returned to the family home in Portsmouth, Ohio, to care for her ailing mother. She lived there until her own death in 1993.

The Foster Professorship was first held by Peter Martin, who joined the Cornell Law School faculty in 1972 and served as dean from 1980 to 1988. In a biography that appeared in an issue of the Cornell Law Review dedicated to Foster in 1995, Professor Martin wrote: "In life, she was uncomfortable with public attention, but she was proud of what she was able to do for legal education at Cornell."

At the dedication of the Jane Foster addition to Myron Taylor Hall in 1989, then Dean Russell K. Osgood said:

"This house ... built with the generosity of a careful, humble woman, to whom many opportunities were closed because of her sex ... will remind us that our society, and our legal system, are not built and should not operate to confirm the powerful in their privileges, but to empower all people, to unlock the potential in the mass of us, to do something and to do it well."