Elizabeth Nelson Tompkins

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Elizabeth Nelson Tompkins (October 1, 1897 - June 25, 1981) was the first female graduate of UVA Law School.


Tompkins was born in Albemarle County to Samuel Woods Tompkins and Sarah Nelson Tompkins. She attended and graduated from St. Catherine's School for Girls in Richmond, an Episcopal school then known as the Virginia Randolph Ellett School in 1915. Tompkins went to Westhampton College (the women's college of the University of Richmond), where she received her bachelor's degree, then Columbia University, where she completed a master's degree.[1]

In 1920, Tompkins was one of the first women admitted to the Law School at the University of Virginia after the General Assembly passed a law allowing white women to enroll in graduate and professional school programs at public schools. She said of her time in the law school, "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.”[2] She graduated in 1923, the first woman to do so, finishing near the top of the class.

The UVA Law School Class of 1923, with Tompkins circled

Following her graduation, Tompkins was the first woman admitted to the Virginia Bar. She clerked for two years under R.T.W. Duke Jr. before moving to Richmond in the hopes of finding more fulfilling work. In Richmond she practiced law and served as commissioner in Hanover County and the city of Richmond itself. Tompkins served on the Board of Trustees of the University of Richmond for over thirty years, and received an honorary doctor of laws from the University in 1970. She practiced law until 1979, when she retired. She passed away just two years later, at the age of 83.[1]

Tompkins' portrait by Frances Brand

In the last decade of her life, Tompkins was painted by Frances Brand as part of her "Firsts" Collection.[3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Web. Our History: Featured Alumni/ae: Tompkins, Elizabeth N., 1923, UVA Law Library
  2. Web. How women found their place at Mr. Jefferson’s University, Sarah Lindenfeld Hall, UVA Magazine
  3. Web. Frances Brand’s “Firsts” Collection, Ineke La Fleur, Albemarle-Charlottesville Historical Society