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Dawn Clark Netsch: A Life Full of Firsts

New biography chronicles life of female legal, educational and political pioneer

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April 15, 2010 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso
Produced by Erin White

CHICAGO --- Dawn Clark Netsch was a Northwestern undergraduate more than 60 years ago, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1948 but not before leading the fight to integrate the University's dormitories after World War II. She would go on to graduate first in her class  from Northwestern University School of Law and joined the law school faculty in 1965 as one of the first group of women law professors in the United States.

Author Cynthia Grant Bowman, who served on the faculty with Netsch at Northwestern Law from 1988-2006, chronicles this trailblazer's life in the newly published biography Dawn Clark Netsch: A Political Life (Northwestern University Press, 2010). 

"Dawn is a warm and charming woman of many contradictions --- a schoolmarm who drinks and smokes, a powerful woman who has never learned to drive, a feminist who thought of herself as one of the boys, a well-to-do woman who is frugal to a fault," writes Bowman, now the Dorothea S. Clark Professor of Law at Cornell University. "As a woman in the legal profession, legal academy and politics, she has also been a pioneer."

Netsch's Northwestern education and professors, particularly Melville J. Herskovits, founder of the University's department of anthropology and its Program of African Studies, greatly influenced her commitment to racial equality. Recognizing that the law was a solution to address inequalities and that politics was the route to change, Netsch entered the then mostly male Northwestern Law in 1949 as one of three women in her entering class. She was the only woman to graduate in 1952.

Netsch made her mark in Chicago and Illinois state politics as well, winning her first political campaign for state senate in 1972 where she served for 18 years. In 1990, she was elected state comptroller, becoming the highest-ranked woman in Illinois state government and the first elected to state constitutional executive office in Illinois. She again made history in 1994 as the first woman to run for governor of Illinois as the candidate of a major political party having won a four-way primary.

She lost her bid for governor but she took advantage of a long-standing offer to return to Northwestern Law to teach. As Professor of Law Emerita, Netsch remains very politically engaged and puts in numerous appearances at fundraisers, both for political campaigns and for the public interest groups for which she is involved. She also remains active in the struggle for government ethics reform in Illinois, campaign reform, tax reform and adequate funding for education. She is also a strong supporter of women wanting to enter the political arena.

"Dawn Clark Netsch's story is that of a political trailblazer, who fought hard for women's rights, good government and public education in the rough and tumble world of Illinois politics," said Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "Her integrity, intellect and tenaciousness make her an inspiration to all who follow in her wake."

Topics: People