Women’s History Month – Jean Camper Cahn
Women’s History Month
Jean Camper Cahn
UDC Alum: Co-founder of Antioch School of Law, now UDC’s David A. Clarke School of Law
Jean Camper Cahn is a lawyer who helped establish federal financing of legal services to the poor and was a co-founder of the Antioch School of Law, the predecessor to the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law.
The Antioch School of Law was established in 1972 by Jean Camper Cahn and Edgar S. Cahn, a married interracial couple dedicated to improving legal services for the underprivileged.
Eager to retain the Antioch School of Law’s mission, curriculum, clinical programs, and personnel for the benefit of the city, in 1986 Antioch School of Law students, alumni and local legal and civic leaders mounted a successful grassroots campaign to persuade the Council of the District of Columbia to pass legislation that re-established the school as the District of Columbia School of Law (DCSL).
The Council of the District of Columbia later passed legislation merging the School of Law with the University of the District of Columbia in 1996. In 1998, President Clinton signed legislation renaming the school after former D.C. Council Chair David A. Clarke, a civil rights leader, former Chair of the Council of the District of Columbia, and long-time advocate for the law school and its mission.
Cahn spent most of her career pursuing legal and social causes in Washington, where she and her husband lived for two decades.
Born into a family of social activists, Cahn’s father, Dr. John E. T. Camper, a physician in Baltimore, was a founder of the first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in that city, where she was born and raised. Regular visitors to the home included Thurgood Marshall, the first black Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and the singer Paul Robeson, who was her godfather.
While at Swarthmore College, she met her husband who was a fellow student whose ancestors had been rabbis and lawyers for seven generations. The couple married in 1957 when she graduated and he was in graduate school studying English at Yale University. She applied also won a scholarship to Yale Law School. Cahn also studied at Cambridge in England on a Fulbright fellowship.
Returning to New Haven, Cahn served as associate general counsel for the New Haven Redevelopment Agency and in the country’s first neighborhood legal services program, the Dixwell offices of Community Progress Inc., financed by the Ford Foundation.
In 1964, during the couple’s final year in New Haven, the Cahns jointly wrote an article for The Yale Law Journal proposing a national system of legal services to the poor as part of what was to become the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty.
Cahn and her husband moved to Florida in 1984. Continuing her fight against injustice until the very end, a week before her death, Cahn argued in a Federal District Court in Florida, where a decision was handed down that upheld her contention that money distributed under the Older Americans Act must be aimed at benefiting those in greatest need.
At the age of 55, Cahn died Jan. 2, 1991 of breast cancer in her home in Miami Beach.
To learn more about Jean Camper Cahn, see the link below to read a tribute to her life in the Yale Law & Policy Review: