A History-Making Career: Joyce Hughes Is Recognized With the Prestigious Margaret Brent Award


Faculty Awards

After blazing trails in legal education for decades, Joyce Hughes is recognized with the prestigious Margaret Brent award.

Joyce A. Hughes, professor of law, was selected by the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession as one of the 2021 Margaret Brent Award recipients. Hughes was presented the award during a virtual ceremony in August 2021.

The prestigious award honors the legacy of Margaret Brent, the first woman lawyer in America, by annually recognizing five outstanding women “who have achieved professional excellence and paved the way for other women in the legal profession,” according to the ABA.

“Professor Hughes’ impressive legal career includes, among her many achievements, being the first Black woman to be a tenure-track law professor at a majority white law school and the first Black woman tenured in any Northwestern University department,” says Hari Osofsky, dean and Myra and James Bradwell Professor of Law. “She has served in numerous leadership positions in government and community service organizations and has worked tirelessly to give a voice to women and people of color, and particularly African American women. She has served as a mentor, sponsor, and role model to so many law students and attorneys here at Northwestern Pritzker Law and nationally.”

“In spite of being both Black and female, I am honored the award commemorates my influence as a trailblazer in law,” says Hughes. “The award should be seen as recognizing the first woman law professor in the country, Lutie Lytle, a Black woman who taught at a Black law school in 1897. It also acknowledges the first Black woman to be a tenured law professor, Sybil Jones Dedmond, who taught at a Black law school 20 years before I started at a white law school.”

Hughes joined the Law School faculty in 1975. When she received tenure in 1979, she became the first Black woman to be tenured in any department at Northwestern University. Hughes says she long defied what society deemed acceptable work for women, let alone a Black woman—sometimes to the dismay of men who tried to discourage her along the way. “I ended up going to law school because I was angry at a recruiter from Columbia Law School who suggested I could not be a lawyer,” she said in a previous interview with the Northwestern Law Reporter. “This man made me so mad.” She said she hoped that her time as tenured faculty at Northwestern Pritzker Law inspired other Black students. “Judge [R. Eugene] Pincham, who is a 1950s graduate of the Law School, gave me the phrase: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ and it totally hit me,” she said. “I don’t have to do anything. Just my being here means that people can see me and think ‘Oh, I can do that.’”

Robin Walker Sterling, Mayer/Brown Robert A. Helman Professor of Law and director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, noted that Hughes’ influence extends beyond students. “Throughout my life, I’ve often been in the position of being one of few Black women to do or achieve some particular thing,” Walker Sterling said. “And sometimes that has been hard, but not compared to being the ‘first.’ And I know [Professor Hughes’s] string of firsts links directly to so many of the opportunities that I have been able to have (and love) throughout my time in legal academia. I am so grateful for her courage and example.”

Prior to Hughes’ time at the Law School, she spent four years teaching at the University of Minnesota, where she also became the first Black woman tenure-track law professor at a predominately white institution. During her time at Minnesota, she also served on the Board of Directors of the National Urban League for six years.

Hughes was a part of the Chicago mayoral campaign for Harold Washington (JD ’52), the first Black person to be elected to the office in 1983 and served until his death in 1987. She was also a member of the Lawyers’ Committee for Washington. That involvement led to Hughes being appointed general counsel of the Chicago Transit Authority.

In her many years in academia, Hughes has contributed to several journals including, Thomas Law Review, North Carolina Central Law Review, and the National Black Law Journal. Her book contributions include the chapter “Neither a Whisper Nor a Shout” in the 1999 book Rebels in Law: Voices in History of Black Women Lawyers, where she discusses her time at the University of Minnesota Law School.

She is an inductee in the Cook County Bar Association Hall of Fame and was honored as a legal luminary by the Chicago Chapter of the American Constitution Society. Hughes retired from teaching at the end of the 2021–2022 academic year. Her retirement celebration will be held in Spring 2024.

This story has been updated. The original article was published on April 22, 2021.