THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I know from experience – if we can imagine it, we can make it happen.“
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, July 2019
MJC: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about before you got [involved] in the women’s movement.
JL: I grew up in New York City. [I was] born in Brooklyn, grew up on the southern tip of Queens in a tiny little town called Far Rockaway, a wonderful way to grow up, in the 40s and 50s. I was born in 1940. Anybody wonder how old I am? I’m about to turn 79 in two weeks.
[I had] two extraordinary parents – my sister and I were brought up to believe that you were put on this earth to make it a better place. My parents politics were very liberal. My mother is now 105 and her politics are still very liberal. We were proud of our Jewish heritage. We were not very religious people, but we believed in the basic tenets of Judaism: to make this world a better place.
So, my parents, as good liberals of the 40s and 50s, believed wholeheartedly that their two daughters needed to be economically independent. They thought education was our pathway to that economic independence. They didn’t have a lot of money; they were working class people. My parents didn’t graduate from high school, [dad] got a GED when I was in law school and my sister by then was working on her PhD.
They [my parents] dropped out of high school, my dad was the oldest of six, my mother the youngest of six – because their families needed their economic support, it was the depression. There was not a lot of room for going to school. [They were] creatures of their time. Had they been born in a different time, I have no doubt they would have been superior candidates for higher education. I grew up in a very safe, nurturing, large family.
MJC: Tell me about your education and preparation for that economic independence.
JL: I started out going to Hofstra College on Long Island and commuting. The summer of my sophomore year, I went to the University of Wisconsin for summer school and fell in love and basically never went home again. I did go back to Hofstra for my first semester of my junior year, because they didn’t have enough dorm rooms at Wisconsin. I transferred there in January 1961 and finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin.
I am very much a product of being mentored. I had a wonderful undergraduate teacher named Shirley Abrahamson who just a few weeks ago retired from the Wisconsin Supreme Court after many decades. [She was] a very important member of that court, much attacked by the right wing and conservatives. She then was a brand-new lawyer herself, teaching an undergraduate course in constitutional law.
Wisconsin had a lot of funny rules and one was that you didn’t have to take the LSAT if you had a minimal average from the Madison campus, a B average, you were automatically admitted to the law school. There were only two of us [women] in the law school out of a class of one hundred and fifty.
I said that I wanted to apply for a PhD in American political theory [and Shirley,] knowing me a little bit as my teacher in con law [knew] that it wasn’t an activist enough degree for me. I needed to think about a law degree, I was a civil rights activist on the campus, and she thought an academic degree was not the right thing. I have often given her all the credit but none of the blame. Applying to graduate school in American Political Theory was pretty non-traditional in ’61, ’62. I graduated in June of that year.
MJC: So, then you go through law school and you’re involved in civil rights in Wisconsin.
JL: Yes, I went to law school because I wanted to be a civil rights activist. I was very interested and absorbed [in] race discrimination in America and very concerned about school segregation. While I was in law school, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed and it came online. The year I graduated from law school in ’65 it became a law that was implemented. I really thought it was an employment law.
One of Wisconsin’s other crazy rules was that it was a diploma state. You could get admitted to the Wisconsin bar without taking a Bar exam [at that time]. No other states accepted that bar admission for reciprocity and I was a New Yorker not intending to make my life in Wisconsin. I did get admitted to the Wisconsin bar and I’m still a proud and inactive member of the Wisconsin bar, but I went home and took the New York bar exam.
It took me a while to figure out how to get to Washington. I came in March of 1966 [to work] for the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare. First in what we would now call the Office of Civil Rights, and then pretty quickly in the general counsel’s office telling Southern school superintendents what they had to do to comply with this new law. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act that said if you get any federal money, you can’t discriminate. Title VI was particularly being tested in the area of education and school desegregation.
MJC: What was the experience of trying to implement a new law like?
JL: It was scary in some ways. The federal government had a couple of interesting policies for those of us lawyers going down and meeting with Southern school superintendents. One was we didn’t use a government car, because people thought that was too dangerous; you rented a local car with a local license plate. The other was, we could never travel in integrated groups, because it was too dangerous. This was the summer of ’66 into ’67. So top of mind was the safety of their employees.
In some really ironic and crazy way, we were then desegregated. There were no national hotel chains, so you stayed in black neighborhoods, in hotels and motels that would allow blacks and whites – there were very few of them. Title II of that same civil rights act, the Public Accommodations Law, also passed in ’64 [and] was just beginning to be implemented. Southern cities and towns were closing swimming pools rather than integrating them. That was the context of these trips [to the] south.
MJC: Did you have any trouble as a woman getting hired by the government to do this work?
JL: No, there wasn’t a gender issue. There were very few women lawyers and at that moment they were eager for lawyers who were willing to do civil rights work. So that wasn’t an issue.
MJC: That’s a very intense period of American history – we were getting new laws to try to eliminate segregation.
JL: Yes, tried to eliminate it, because we sit on more than the vestiges. [The] reality [is we have] very segregated schools in America. And here we have in our political dialogue Kamala Harris and Joe Biden talking about school busing – it’s just shocking. I thought I was the only person in America who still talked about school busing.
MJC: So, you moved to Washington. You weren’t married at that time.
JL: I wasn’t married. I met Elliott who was an appellate lawyer arguing in courts of appeals all over the country for a federal agency called the National Labor Relations Board, the NLRB. I met him through a blind date. He had already been a volunteer lawyer in Mississippi for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
I met him in July of ’66. He had been in Mississippi for a month and he was determined to leave the NLRB and go back full time the first time the Lawyers’ Committee had a slot available in their Jackson office. This guy was very committed to civil rights, doing something about the injustices of race discrimination and [was] determined to return to Mississippi.
He went back to Mississippi full-time in February of ’67 and we had this commuting relationship until the March on the Pentagon. [It was] the anti-Vietnam War March. He came up to join me as a legal observer trying to make sure that people who were arrested weren’t clobbered to death. We spent the entire weekend getting people out of jail. At the end of the weekend I said I can’t do this [long distance] anymore and he said OK I think we should get married.
We married two months later at the end of December ’67. We bought a tiny little house in a wonderful, brand new black neighborhood in Jackson. [It was a] little house that was built for us for $13,999. We got married, packed up the car and moved to Mississippi for a year, where I taught at Jackson State College. [It’s] now Jackson State University, a historic black college [and I was] their first white hire. It was a very gutsy, courageous thing for the black president of a state institution to hire me in the first place. Elliott continued working for the Lawyers’ Committee, he was there for two years and I for one full year.
MJC: When did you return to Washington?
JL: At the end of ’68 we returned to Washington. Elliott [got] a civil rights job with a private law firm, Joe [Rauh Jr.] was “Mr. civil rights” and “Mr. labor law” in this town. Elliott had the unique confluence of expertise in labor law and civil rights, so he was hired as a young associate. We always intended to make our lives in D.C. We never intended to move to Mississippi full time. We came back a little earlier than either of us had planned, maybe a year or two ahead of our schedule, but jobs like that and getting paid didn’t happen very often.
Elliott came back and I took one more civil rights job after another. My first job coming back was working for the Urban Coalition. I then went to the US Commission on Civil Rights [and] at each place [was] working on school desegregation issues. I left the commission in the summer of ’74, intending to take the summer off and just relax. I hadn’t not worked since I was 14 years old, I had a little girl who was 2 years old and I thought this was going to be fun, I was going to take the summer off.
[Gladys Kessler], a wonderful woman who was one of the founders of the then Women’s Legal Defense Fund [now: National Partnership for Women & Families], was a federal judge appointed by President Clinton. [She] said we just got this new money from The Junior League of Washington D.C. Brooksley Born had given a dynamite speech to the Junior League of Washington D.C. entitled “de jure race sex discrimination”. It was all the ways that the law requires gender bias, not just permits it but requires it.
Brooksley got these junior legal ladies all fired up and they gave the Women’s Legal Defense Fund $30,000 one-time seed money grant. That allowed Gladys to come and make the pitch to me that I should come work on sex discrimination issues. I thought sex discrimination issues were interesting. I didn’t know anything about them. My first love was [fighting] race discrimination. I didn’t love the discrimination, I loved the fighting of it.
Gladys made a very simple argument [that] the nexus between race and sex discrimination and poverty is inextricable and unless you [were] working on gender and race, you were [never] going to get at the roots and seeds of poverty in this country. Think of all our modern day, contemporary discussions about the need for working on issues [with intersectionality]. That made a lot of sense. So, I took this job, $15,000. $10,000 I paid an assistant; $5,000 I ran the office and I learned a lot about sex discrimination.
I came to the Women’s Defense Fund in July 1974. Roe had been decided barely 18 months before. Ruth Ginsburg was just beginning in 1971 to attack sex discrimination in the courts. Congress was just beginning to pass laws that prohibited sex discrimination. We have the Equal Pay Act of ’63, in that same Civil Rights Act of ’64 I talked about – Title VI. Title VII included for the first-time employment, except for the Equal Pay Act of the year before. Title IX is ’72, barely two years before I started, and you see now the glory of the women’s soccer.
And at the same time, we’re not being paid equally. We have come very far and by God we have very far to go. At the same time a celebration and smack your hand against your head – how can this be that they are paid less than men?
MJC: So much less.
JL: So much less.
MJC: Not just a little.
JL: I had a lot to learn, but not all that much to learn. Racism and sexism are inextricably intertwined.
MJC: Talk about the women’s rights movement and how that phenomenon [influenced you]?
JL: The Women’s Legal Defense Fund was founded in ’71 and I came in July of ’74. From ’71 to my being hired, we operated as a local direct service organization with volunteers. [We] divided ourselves up into counseling committees: one in employment discrimination, one on family law, one on reproductive rights, another on name change, which was a big issue of the time. Women wanted to figure out how to retain their birth given name or go back to it.
We were local, we weren’t [a] big national policy organization. We litigated a little bit and if we were born in someplace other than the nation’s capital, as an institution we would have stayed a local direct service organization. Ruth Ginsburg was arguing these cases and winning a fair number of them. Congress was passing laws like the Equal Pay Act, Title VII, Title IX, and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
The administration was promulgating new regulations that gave force in effect to these brand-new congressional laws [and] district court decisions. [They were] throwing out the old regulations discriminating on the basis of sex and forcing the administrative agencies to promulgate new regulations. You need implementing regulations to make those laws real and enforced. I had a fair amount of experience from those various jobs doing public policy. I understood the advocacy piece and the lobbying piece from these various jobs.
[A lot] of us nonprofit leaders of the time made our organizations in our image. I had a strength. And I had some frailties. I played to my strength. I didn’t play to being a major litigation arm, because I didn’t know how to do that. We became a central place in the women’s movement for public policy, reform and advocating for regulations. We tried hard not to be too nerdy [or] lawyerly. We didn’t get away from that [as much as] we might have sought to. But we were key players in every piece of women’s rights, legal rights, and civil rights legislation and implementing [them].
We weren’t representing very many plaintiffs, every once in a while we would. We were the first people to bring [forward] a sexual harassment case in this country. [In 1974] Barnes V Costle established the principle that sexual harassment was sex discrimination and a violation of Title VII of the ’64 Civil Rights Act. With the National Women’s Law Center [then the Women’s Rights Project of the Center for Law and Social Policy], we were operating as the legal arm of the women’s movement.
We would jointly convene a coalition to get strong regulations to implement Title IX. We would work with NOW and a broad number of women’s groups to get an executive order promulgated that said if you get government contracts you better not discriminate against women and you better have an affirmative action plan in place that requires you to hire women at all levels of your place of employment and retain them.
[This took place] from the construction industry to higher ed[ucation]. We were keenly aware of our legal expertise and how we could best be peers and colleagues [as well as] represent women.
MJC: Where was the work you did afterwards directed at? The Hill? In terms of getting the laws implemented.
LW: It was getting laws passed on the Hill, but there was a wasteland of years of Reagan and Bush who were hostile to the enforcement of civil rights. Sometimes we were counting our victories by what evil we stopped: what bad laws or regulations we stopped from taking away victories we had already won. In the context of reproductive rights, Carter was not pro-choice.
The first pro-choice president this country’s ever had was Bill Clinton in ’93. The entire time from ’74 to ’93 we were fighting really bad attempts either by administrations, including Jimmy Carter’s administration, sometimes winning and often losing. We were on the defensive in the reproductive rights area.
MJC: The Democrats controlled Congress during part of that?
JL: Yes, except from ’80 to ’86 we lost the Senate. But we had the House, which was very important. [It was] part of our defense strategy. But it didn’t work for judges and judicial appointments any more than not having the Senate today works for us, i.e. Brett Kavanaugh.
MJC: Would you say your organization was adaptable?
JL: Yes. I always describe us as happily opportunistic. If we were on the defensive on a particular issue, we sought how to make lemonade out of lemons or how to stop evil from happening. If we were in a position to push the envelope, we looked for every single opportunity and still do (the National Partnership for Women and Families) to move the needle by as much as you can. I think of us as not only happily, smartly and strategically opportunistic, but as very entrepreneurial. I don’t think organizations like ours thrive unless you’re both.
MJC: There have been peaks and valleys in terms of the administration. How [has] that affected your work?
JL: I’ll give you an example. The first law that Bill Clinton signed in 1993, he was barely in office two weeks, [was the] Family and Medical Leave Act. Our work on FMLA began in the mid ’80s. Donna Lenhoff, one of my colleagues and friends wrote FMLA long before we had computers. She said [she] didn’t even have whiteout. That’s a lie, I gave her whiteout for sure, it was a typewriter.
Our work, the intellectual capital piece of writing and testifying on behalf of the FMLA, having substantive hearings on behalf of the FMLA happened all in the ’80s. We were positioning it. And not giving [up] hope that we could get Bush [Sr] to sign it. He vetoed it twice, we were wrong, but we never gave up. We were pie-eyed optimists. We were not masochists; we think oh we’re going to make a difference and this time we’re going to convince them to do it. We were wrong twice.
And then both [Walter] Mondale and [Michael] Dukakis rejected our pleas to include support for the Family and Medical Leave Act in their campaigns. They thought it was too communist, way too left for them.
MJC: For [Walter] Mondale?
JL: And too expensive. That was socialist, although they said communist, but again, a topic which now rears its head this minute.
MJC: So, you had to continually come up with alternative strategies?
JL: Yes, I didn’t know Governor Bill Clinton – I met him once in the street – but I did know the first lady of Arkansas. She was an old friend. I’d known Hillary Clinton since she was a law student. I went to her and asked if Bill Clinton would consider endorsing the passage of FMLA as a candidate. She said, “I don’t know; I think it’s a really good idea. Let me see.”
They did some polling, they had the money for polling, and lo and behold it was very popular. And so, we did endorse the notion and because we had passed it twice, but George Bush had vetoed it twice, it was a great contrast issue in the ’92 campaign. And it was ready. It was positioned to move. As I said, two weeks later it was passed by both houses. We had passed by both houses before, but never by overwhelming margins to override a Bush veto.
Here we were with the president committing to sign it and he wrote W for William, he leaned over and handed me the pen. Now President Clinton says that [there isn’t anywhere he goes] in this country where somebody doesn’t thank him for FMLA. We know from Labor Department statistics that it has been used more than 200 million times. And it’s unpaid leave, our advocacy for paid leave [gives] job security.
It says you can’t get fired if you have a family health emergency but it’s not [a] wage replacement. It assumes either public assistance or a family that can help support you. If you don’t have one of those, you can’t take unpaid family leave, as good as it is. So, when you look to the future, it’s to get passed [a bill] by the Congress and to position it to be amongst the first bills that a president will sign in 2021.
MJC: I assume originally the bill you supported was to provide paid leave?
JL: It never had paid leave, because our congressional supporters said that it would never start.
MJC: So, in the back of your mind you knew?
JL: Yes, but we didn’t think it would take this long and it’s embarrassing that it [is taking] so long. We’re very active now in state and local governments – Oregon just passed something. We have it in many states and local governments.
MJC: So, talk about your developing role in the organization? You didn’t run it the day you walked in.
JL: I did. I was hired as executive director, but I was also the only person. (I have a friend whose father used to say she was chair of the Italian department in the high school she taught at, but she was the only Italian teacher.) I did run it, but I quickly hired an assistant for that other $10,000 and when we got enough money from the Ford Foundation, I hired Donna Lenhoff.
It was a joint Grant with Women Employed in Chicago. Women Employed from the perspective of a local grass roots organization working on women’s employment discrimination issues and [we were] a national policy organization [that] dovetailed [on]. We split the money right down the middle and have worked closely since 1976 when I hired Donna.
MJC: That was enforcement too?
JL: Yes, that was enforcing the laws.
MJC: What was Brooksley Born’s role?
JL: She was a first-year associate and then a partner in a big corporate law firm, Arnold and Porter, volunteering her services. Interestingly enough she became the chair of the board of the National Women’s Law Center and just retired about two or three weeks ago. One of the true blessings of this work are the friendships and the collegiality and managing the competition between each of these groups. I think it’s a very feminist thing, I don’t believe that men would have been able to pull it off.
MJC: What else would you like to highlight as part of your long-term involvement with the organizations?
JL: There are several things. One is the judicial appointments in friendly administrations of people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Pat Wald (recently deceased) from our Court of Appeals, Justice Sotomayor, Justice Kagan, of the committed federal judges in the circuits around this country and in district courts who have for years made a difference. And many of them still on the court. Certainly, the Obama judges who have in every way stopped the Trump administration from undermining democracy and the rule of law.
I’m very proud of our role in judicial nominations and in appointments generally. Breaking the glass ceiling both in corporate America – and I look at the women’s sports teams and the implementation of Title IX and it could not have happened without Title IX. [I graduated] from high school in 1958. It would not have occurred to me to play on a team – there was no team. Maybe they’d let us play tennis, but at off times.
And here [is] this celebration of glorious, talented women. If you look at women in corporate America and in high level government, higher ed positions, very often they have had experience in women’s sports. Very often there’s a nexus between playing sports and women’s leadership. It’s magical.
MJC: It’s certainly been good for men.
JL: Yes, and always was! [It was] an economic opportunity to go to college in the first place.
MJC: [Are there] any other ways you want to talk about how the movement has affected your life?
JL: [As] I’ve suggested, the most important [part has been my] work colleagues became my closest friends. The people I rely on, my trusted buddies, the people you would tell anything to and the people who would always have my back [and vice versa]. You can’t overstate the personal is the political and vice versa [are] passed on to the next generation.
I don’t know if Marcia Greenberger told you this story, but our respective daughters and their families are close. My grandson, last year who was 9, and her grandson who is 9 know each other only slightly. [They] found themselves in the same day camp and they sort of eyed each other and circled each other for a couple of days and finally my grandson Jack said to Toby, “Do you know Judy Lichtman?” And Toby did. I mean there it is, the third generation. He knew Judy Lichtman.
So certainly, the friendships and differences we’ve all made. I’m painting a picture that’s probably rosier than it is. There were difficult and competitive times, but for the most part, without putting sugar coated gloss on it, while social change isn’t linear and there are terrible valleys, it is better today than it was.
It’s not better enough. There is an enormous amount to do, most especially for women of color, older women, LGBTQ women. There’s no declaring victory and going home. We have battles that we have to refight. [There was] a 1963 Supreme Court decision that said married women were entitled to legally buy contraception. Today [it is a] topic of discussion about whether or not employers have to include [the provision of contraception] in their health plans.
There are no permanent victories. There are realistic gains and every single one of those gains parlay into another gain. Understand that you have to defend those.
MJC: [That sounds like] your advice for the upcoming generations?
JL: Absolutely and giving forward. I spend an enormous amount of my time when I’m not raising money for the National Partnership, talking to young women who want to think about careers in the movement. My one admonishment to them is, I’m going to be watching and I expect you to give back. Don’t send me a thank you note, I don’t want your damn thank you note. I want you to hear me and spend your life bringing other women along. A) I’m going to know and B) I want you to report back to me.
MJC: And are they doing it?
JL: Yeah they are, for sure they are.
MJC: We’ve covered a lot. Is there anything we haven’t covered or areas that you want to talk about? Are there other areas of activism? You’re still very involved with the partnership.
JL: I’m on some public interest boards. I’m on the board of the Mississippi Center for Justice. [It] is the successor of that early Lawyers’ Committee, a group that Elliot worked for back in the ’60s and it is truly a labor of love. Working on true women’s issues from reproductive rights and terrible Mississippi state laws, banning abortion coverage and attempting to close the few abortion clinics left in Mississippi, to all the race discrimination issues: from bullying to school desegregation. That’s a board I’m very proud of. Emily’s List, [I am a] founder of Emily’s List [and] still on the board.
MJC: This has been a pleasure to talk to you.
JL: Thank you, Mary Jean. Thank you for having me and for listening.