Making Democracy Work

2011 SBA Ellen Solender

Ellen Solender, 2011 Susan B. Anthony Awardee

Ellen Solender Ellen Van Raalte Karelsen Solender was born in New York in 1923, just three years after women got the right to vote in the U.S. The daughter of a member of the League of Women Voters, she experience political discussions throughout her childhood. She was educated first in Ethical Culture Society schools, where principles of equality were highly prized, and later at Ohio's Oberlin College, a major innovator in education for students of color and women. After college she worked at AT&T's Bell Labs.

When World War II ended, Ellen married Robert L. Solender, one of her Oberlin classmates, and in 1949 they moved to Dallas, where she worked at the Wall Street Journal until the first of her three children was born. She also joined the League of Women Voters, became Vice President for Programs in 1959, worked on significant Texas issues including the right of women to serve on juries enacted in 1954, and repeal of the Poll Tax, fully repealed in 1966. Ellen noticed that when she dealt with government staff on behalf of the League, her questions were not taken seriously, so she decided to improve her credentials. With three kids in school (Eliza, Tom and Katie), and being twice the age of most of her fellow students, she went to SMU Law School, graduated in the top ten percent of her class, and passed the bar in 1971.

For Ellen, law school was an education in more than just the law. Twelve women started with her in law school, but only five finished. In the 1970's in Dallas, women were not welcome in large law firms, and no firm or even the district attorney's office hired Ellen or her female classmates. Ellen took a part-time job teaching legal writing at the SMU Law School and also worked with Hope Cottage, the adoption agency, and on a project for Southwestern Medical School. Soon SMU asked her to teach more, and she became a full-time faculty member. In 1977, she became the second woman to receive tenure in the history of the SMU Law School.

At SMU Ellen was able to make significant contributions to equality and the protection of equality by working to change the predominantly male law student's perceptions of women. She also became a mentor to female students and to her female colleagues on the faculty. She felt that the university and the legal profession desperately needed more women and she encouraged women to enter law school and stay the course, often against great odds and prejudice. Her advice played a significant role in the careers of many lawyers and judges in Texas. Fifteen of the judges in Dallas County today are her former students.

Ellen also devoted time to committee and faculty meetings to guide SMU policies on issues of equal pay and sexual harassment, and for many years she worked closely with her friend and colleague Professor Joseph McKnight, Director of the Texas Family Law Project. She continued community involvement in many roles, including serving as Vice- Chair of the City of Dallas' Fund solicitation Board in 1974, and she has been on the City's Domestic Violence Task Force since it was formed in
1987.

When she retired from active teaching in 1994, SMU established the Ellen K. Solender Institute in Free Speech and Mass Media Law.