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Our History: Featured Alumni/ae: Tompkins, Elizabeth N., 1923

Over the decades our graduates have developed distinguished careers as justices, members of Congress, ambassadors, educators, business people, and community leaders in many fields. This site features some of those late graduates.

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Elizabeth Nelson Tompkins

First female graduate of University of Virginia School of Law

Born in Albemarle County in 1899, Elizabeth Tompkins earned a bachelor's degree from Westhampton College and a master's degree from Columbia University before she applied in 1920 to study law at Virginia. She was also a 1915 graduate of The Virginia Randolph Ellett School in Richmond (now St. Catherine's School). With the encouragement of her father, Tompkins at age twenty-two became one of the first women admitted to the Law School. As Tompkins described her experience in a 1980 interview with Virginia Law Weekly, “It took them one semester to find out that I was not after a husband and another semester to find out that I could do the work. After that everything was fine.”

Tompkins then became UVA's first female law graduate, finishing near the top of the Class of 1923. She was also the first woman to be admitted to the Virginia State Bar. Despite her high class ranking, Tompkins had trouble breaking into law practice. For two years after graduation, she clerked in Charlottesville for Judge R.T.W. Duke, Jr. Then in 1925, following the advice of Dean Lile, she moved to Richmond, where she began practicing, first with H. Carter Redd and later with Carter L. Refo. She also served as commissioner of accounts for Hanover County and commissioner in chancery for circuit courts in Hanover and Richmond. Tompkins played an active leadership role at the University of Richmond, serving as president of the Westhampton College Alumnae Association and sitting for thirty years on the Board of Trustees. Richmond awarded her an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1970. In 1981, Elizabeth Tompkins died at the age of eighty-three, just two years after she had retired from law practice.

Papers of Elizabeth N. Tompkins are in Special Collections, Arthur J. Morris Library, University of Virginia School of Law, Charlottesville, Va.

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