Profile with Joan Leopold

Joan Leopold's recent book

Joan Leopold's recent book

Joan Leopold (Rhodes Visiting Fellow & Lady Margaret Hall 1972) is an educator, researcher and practicing attorney. She was an honorary senior fellow at University College in London and has taught at Oxford University, London Metropolitan University and other universities in the United States and Germany. She previously acted as an arbitrator and temporary judge for the Los Angeles Superior and Municipal Courts. Joan holds a JD from the University of California in Los Angeles, a PhD from Harvard University and a BA from Vassar College. 

Rhodes Project: Where did you grow up?

Joan Leopold: I grew up in New York City on the border between New York City and Nassau County.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite childhood memory? 

Joan Leopold: I used to take ballet lessons and I remember dressing up in a butterfly costume that my mother had made. She took a photograph of me out in the back yard that I still have.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

Joan Leopold: It depends what you mean by job. I used to teach piano to the neighboring children. I know that sounds like Little Women or something.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you aspire to be later in life?

Joan Leopold: At one point, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I liked dogs and horses.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about law?

Joan Leopold: It’s not that direct. I’m also an historian and I was doing British and European history at Oxford.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a little bit about what you were doing at Oxford?

Joan Leopold: You have to understand, first of all, that I’m not a Rhodes Scholar. I’m a Rhodes Fellow. I was the first Rhodes Fellow from the western hemisphere.  I was already at St Antony’s College, which is a graduate college at Oxford. Then I applied for the Rhodes fellowship at Lady Margaret Hall, so I had already been at Oxford for two years. I was awarded the fellowship, which is a faculty-level position, in 1972. It was before Cecil Rhodes’ will had been changed by Parliament to allow women Scholars. The Fellowships were developed for women because the Rhodes Trust couldn’t give women scholarships under the will that Rhodes had left without a change voted by Parliament. So it set up the Fellowships as an alternative for women. They rotated among what were then the women’s colleges, which are now mostly co-educational.  Each college had one a year and they could decide what geographical area it was from.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a little bit about your job right now?

Joan Leopold: I’m over retirement age in England, but I’m writing books, teaching and I also practice law. I am a non-practicing solicitor, though I qualified as a solicitor. Before that, I qualified as a California attorney, so I’m a California attorney who is a non-practicing solicitor at the moment.  It may be that I will be practicing soon in England as well.

Rhodes Project: What is a memorable learning moment you have had recently?

Joan Leopold: I was teaching in Oxford during Hilary (winter) term, and I had two students who were from the U.S. One of them was very imaginative and the other was sort of staid and factual. There’s always this debate in history as to how chronological and factual history should be, or whether it should be more aspirational.  I was tutoring them separately and then had them together in the last session. One was doing an earlier period and the other was doing the period that followed. I designed the paper topic so that at the last session they met at the same point in time, but one was going backward and the other was going forward. I wanted to see what we could get out of that conjunction because I always wanted to teach history backwards. It’s usually assumed in teaching and studying history that one thing necessarily follows from the other. You only study what actually happened. You don’t study what could have happened. By going backwards, you get to see how people felt at the time without knowing what was going to happen next.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any issue, global or local, what would it be?

Joan Leopold: That’s a big question. I guess I would set up what I was on later, which was the Humboldt Fellowships. They are German fellowships that bring a lot of people from outside of Europe to study in Europe. They have people from Europe go to conferences and meetings and organize alumni organizations outside of Europe to keep the intellectual spirit alive that they encountered when they were on the fellowship. I think it’s important that people get to see what other countries are like and what people are doing instead of just relying on stereotypes. I study the history of racial and ethnic stereotyping. I had an issue to think about before I took the Rhodes fellowship. Rhodes was one of the people I studied and he had white supremacist views, so I had some compunction about whether I should take a fellowship from that source. On the other hand, I felt that it was particularly appropriate since I would be challenging the type of views that had been expressed in the founding of the Scholarship.

Rhodes Project: If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go and why?

Joan Leopold: I would probably go back to California to visit my family.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Joan Leopold: I do things like reading newspapers. My father was a journalist. He used to bring home four or five papers a day, so at night I would read the papers and I have kept on doing that.

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