Jeryl Hayes can remember the moment she wanted to devote her life to women’s issues.
She was in the fifth grade at West Elementary in Youngstown, Ohio. Despite being the “shortest, scrawniest kid in the class,” she didn’t think it was right the teacher would ask boys to run errands such as hauling books.
“One day, I said to my teacher, ‘Why do you only ask the boys to volunteer? Aren’t the girls just as capable?’
“She was surprised, but said, ‘OK, you can go today.’ I remember holding this stack of textbooks — they were super-heavy — but I kept telling myself, ‘This is important.’
“From that moment,” she says, “my teacher always just asked for volunteers. She never distinguished between male or female.”
The short, scrawny fifth grader now is a grown woman, whose heavy lifting of the past three years has involved law textbooks and legal clinics. On May 20, she will receive a juris doctorate from the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.
Hayes earned a bachelor of arts in communications from Denison University in 2004. After working a few years, she began considering law schools on the East Coast when a friend suggested WUSTL.
“The visit to campus sold me,” she says. “And it has been an incredible fit.”
She moved to St. Louis in 2008 knowing no one. “I felt comfortable right away,” she says. “I had this idea that law school was a stuffy place, and everyone was super-serious and nobody was interested in forming relationships. That was so wrong.
“It’s competitive, but in a way that doesn’t prohibit you from maintaining friendships.”
Hayes leaves WUSTL with a long list of activities and accomplishments, including current president and social chair of the Student Bar Association, where she has been “an incredibly effective bridge,” according to Laura Rosenbury, JD, professor of law and associate dean for research and faculty development.
Hayes also has been a board member of the Women’s Law Caucus; a member of the Black Law Students Association; on the regional negotiation team; and has worked in WUSTL’s Civil Justice Clinic.
“Jeryl is passionate, quick, kind, organized, diligent and wholly committed to engagement with issues of power and privilege,” Rosenbury says. “She has repeatedly illustrated the various ways we can all use the law to achieve social change.”
Last summer, Hayes secured an internship in Oakland, Calif., at the headquarters of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, an issue about which she is most passionate.
“I would classify myself as a raging feminist,” she says. “I like looking at, in the legal setting, the areas that women can be controlled. Reproductive rights are one of the easiest ways that women get controlled by those making decisions that really should be left to the individual.”
For that reason, Hayes, as she looks ahead to a career, will head to Washington, D.C., later this summer to look for work with a reproductive rights nonprofit agency.
“I’d love to do some policy advising,” she says. “My dream job ultimately is to be a chief of staff or policy adviser for a legislator, to help them understand the impact of the laws that they’re considering and what that means for women in poor economic situations.”
Hayes realizes these issues can be polarizing, but says the solution is found one policy, one person at a time.
“Honestly, if you sit down and talk with people about their individual views, people are really more in the middle of the road than they let on,” she says.
Hayes, 28, is second youngest of five and credits her father with instilling a passion for law. “My dad always wanted to go to law school, but he didn’t have the opportunity, so he wanted one of us to go. I argued with him the most — and most consistently.”
Unfortunately, Hayes’ father, Jerome, won’t be at WUSTL to see her get that degree. A serious health issue prohibits him from traveling, but her mom and younger sister will be.
After Commencement, she gets no rest. Hayes starts review classes in Columbus, Ohio, Monday, May 23, for the Ohio bar exam this summer; then, it’s off to Washington, D.C., where she looks forward to working through the most difficult issues facing our country.
“We need to find common ground,” she says. “That’s going to be the way to move our country back to the center. Let’s find at least one area we can agree on.”