Lois J. Schiffer

I have had the opportunity, for ourselves and the generations that follow, to make the air a little cleaner, the water and land a little safer, and our nation’s public lands a little more protected –what an honor.”

Interviewed by JudyWaxman, June 4, 2020

[Edited Transcript]

JW:  Good afternoon, Lois. It’s Judy Waxman on behalf of the Veteran Feminists of America. Today is June 4th, 2020 and we’re trying this interview over Skype. Give me your whole name and your life before the women’s movement.

LS:  My name is Lois Jane Schiffer. I became involved in the women’s movement in a committed way toward the end of Law School – the last of the 1960’s – though I was certainly interested in the treatment of women during college as well. 

My parents came to Washington, D.C. in the 1930s to work for the government and stayed. My three younger siblings and I  were born and grew up in Washington, D.C. I went primarily to public schools. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the D.C. public schools were racially segregated by law through my fourth grade because the District of Columbia was a southern city in that regard. I went to Lafayette Elementary School, Alice Deal Junior High School, and Wilson High School; these are schools that are still in Washington (though Wilson is likely to have its name changed because of the racist views and actions of Woodrow Wilson). 

I loved school. I was the valedictorian of my high school class, was interested in a wide range of academic subjects, and was actively involved in the school newspaper, The Beacon, where I was the deputy Editor in Chief. I was engaged in many other activities as well. After I graduated from high school, I went directly to Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After my initial shock of feeling quite unprepared for the experience—I had never written a serious term paper before—I had a good academic experience, good school experience generally. 

At Radcliffe I studied primarily social sciences and made lifelong friends. I had gone to college thinking I would be a math major, but that didn’t last very long. I learned about the social sciences, which were far more interesting. I majored in a special program called Social Studies, which integrated history, government, economic, and social relations (sociology and psychology). We looked at the problems of society through a multifaceted lens. That approach has carried through my work for the rest of my life. 

Radcliffe was a so-called “women’s college” in the bigger Harvard University. We had the same classes, but we had quite different dormitories and different traditions. I think that we all felt we were pretty second class—that is why I say that even in college I was aware of issues related to women. 

An example of this second-class treatment is that when I decided I wanted to go to law school and went to the guidance counselor to discuss it, she said, “Well, you girls all do well on the writing part of the exams, but you may actually not get in anywhere.” At the time, I wasn’t appalled – now it is somewhat shocking to me that the counselors were not pushing the law schools to let the women—who had the same education as Harvard men—into the schools.

JW:  May I ask what year that was?

LS:  I graduated from college in 1966. So, we’re talking about the mid-1960s. Indeed, I did get into law school, although it was very clear there was a double standard for admissions. After some thought, I went to Harvard Law School; in my class there were approximately 35 women in the class of over 500 students. That was more women than the class before us. So, while I was not at that time involved in feminist organizations, all the way through both college and law school I was conscious of the fact that women were in a professional way treated differently, and differently didn’t mean better.

On the other hand, I had terrific friends and the women in my law school class bonded and hung together and that was an important experience as well. I had gone to law school thinking that I wanted to work on legal issues related to poor people and civil rights. I did that for at least one of the summers of law school. I went to Mississippi with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and when I graduated from law school, I became what was called a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow – it was a program to get capable people into legal services programs.

We took special training and then I went to work in the Boston Legal Assistance Project, which was the legal services program in Boston. I stayed there for a year and then I decided I really wanted to come back to Washington DC. I had family here. I had friends here. I had been in Cambridge, in Boston, for quite a while and was ready to come back. So, in 1970 – 50 years ago, right now – I moved back to Washington and have been here ever since.  

When I came back, I was a law clerk for a year on the federal Court of Appeals. The last year I was in Boston (1969-70) I had friends who introduced me to what was then NOW, the National Organization for Women, and became aware that there were beginning to be organizations that were paying attention to the role of women and opportunities for women. And certainly, I had my own experiences. That was my life before I was an active part of the women’s movement.

JW:  Did your ethnic or religious background have any impact on your thinking and what you did?

LS:  I grew up as middle class, white and Jewish in Washington. More than being Jewish, I think it was the Jewish values that were conveyed to us, in my family and among my friends, that certainly informed my interest in working on issues for less well-off people and for justice. But I wouldn’t say otherwise that it had too much impact.

JW:  So, you joined NOW when you came to Washington?

LS:  I joined NOW when I was in Cambridge. My first year in Washington I was a law clerk and it was understood that we weren’t to affiliate ourselves with organizations during that year. The Court was concerned about the appearance of neutrality. I did become immediately aware of a group of progressive women lawyers, who became friends in Washington.

Several of those people wanted to form an organization that eventually evolved into the Women’s Legal Defense Fund. Various people had a meeting about it, and I remember agonizing and then deciding that because I was a law clerk, I didn’t really think I could go to that meeting. When I completed my clerkship, in the late summer of 1971, I did join that organization. That was the first women’s organization that I was actively involved with.

JW:  What did you do there?

LS:  I was on the Board of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund and I was part of the litigation screening committee. I don’t particularly remember that I handled cases, although I certainly worked on legal issues for them. The idea of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund was both to look at broad law reform issues, and also to provide direct legal services to women in Washington on matters that related to discrimination. 

Of course, at that time, discrimination was a very broad topic because there was discrimination in many areas, including credit, application for mortgages, housing, and much employment discrimination. Women couldn’t easily go back to their own names (after marriage) without a proceeding.

JW:  I actually myself graduated law school in 1976 and my colleague wanted to get divorced, but the judge said she had to keep her husband’s name. We went to the Women’s Legal Defense Fund and got counsel and she was ultimately able to keep her own name or go back to, I should say, her name.

LS:  Name change was a big topic in those days. I remember working on a name change for one person who then contributed some money to the organization because we succeeded. That’s an example of the wide range of discrimination issues that people now wouldn’t think so much about. Another example is  that when I was a law clerk, we wore dresses, of course, skirts, all the time. Pantsuits were becoming fashionable.

There were two other women law clerks at the same time I was a law clerk and I remember finally one day wearing a pantsuit to the office and bringing my dress in a paper bag in case I ran out of courage. It was a very different time and a very different set of opportunities for women. We all felt that we were on the forefront, taking advantage of terrific opportunities that were given to us but being very aware that it was important to lift up other women too, that we were in this together and not apart.

JW:  I must ask if you wore the pantsuit that day.

LS:  Yes, I did.

JW:  OK, great. It was a thing I remember myself. Tell me, what were the issues of greatest concern to you?

LS:  Let me describe a few more steps in my career and then I can answer that question in a more fulsome way. After finishing my court clerkship, I went to work at a private law firm in Washington doing just regular law firm litigation and related regulatory work. But I handled a couple of cases for the American Civil Liberties Union then and a few of them were related to women in the military. They were early cases when the Army did not want to let women who had children out of wedlock into the military. We had a lawsuit and then we settled the lawsuit with legislation that we put into a bill in Congress, to cure that problem. 

I also handled a case that I called the ”Short Cops” case – it is very funny when you know that I am no more than five feet tall. The D.C. Police Department would not allow anybody to become a police officer unless they were at least five foot seven; that rule clearly had a discriminatory impact against women because more women are shorter. Of course, there are many approaches to policing that do not require an intimidating physical presence. We had a lawsuit and the police settled and changed the rule. 

So, I was working on women’s issues even in private practice. In early 1974, I had a fabulous opportunity to go to work at an organization then called the Center for Law and Social Policy, working on women’s issues with Marcia Greenberger in the Women’s Rights Project. The project had been founded with impetus from the secretaries and support staff at the Center.  That was when I got engaged in women’s issues as a full-time matter—I continued to work on women in the military, and also discrimination in higher education.  

Eventually I left the Center to work at the U.S. Justice Department as Chief of the General Litigation Section in what was then called the Land and Natural Resources Division. [There is no organization I have worked for that hasn’t changed its name somewhere along the way.] I was hired there as an affirmative action matter, without a doubt. The person who headed the Division—Jim Moorman, who became an important mentor to me – said that he was going to turn this backwater Division of the Justice Department into a fabulous environmental law firm. But the Division needed women; it had very few in part because those who were there had been told they didn’t belong and had been given bad assignments. 

He said: “Would you come and run the General Litigation Section?” I told him I was unqualified, but he persisted, and I did go. I had the opportunity to hire women, to be a mentor to women, to really bring a woman’s view and voice into the work. And, of course, to show that women can do excellent legal work. I also turned out to know a lot of relevant law, and learned more.  

When you ask about what I view as the most important issues I worked on? It was as much in my capacity as a manager and as a colleague with women lawyers and support staff as it is the important substantive cases that we handled. There I really had the opportunity to develop opportunities for women lawyers, to see that support staff were fairly treated, to let some lawyers work part time work even though they handled  litigation. The role of manager and the opportunity that gave me to make things better for women was as important as the environmental work that I did there. And of course, work on issues related to the environment and its protection became very important to me. I had a real opportunity to help ensure environmental protection through law and to help improve access to the courts for those in the public interest community.

JW:  Would you say that there’s any one experience you can think about or memorable event that you’d like to talk about?

LS:  I’ve had so much opportunity to have phenomenal experiences that it is extremely hard to pick out one. I would say in terms of the environment, that after I’d been at the Justice Department for about six months, a friend of mine called and said, “You need a vacation.” And I said, “I have no time to deal with that.” And my friend said, “I’ve been signed up for a year to go down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I will call and see if you can get on that trip.” And I went.  

That was truly a life-changing experience. It was in the outdoors, in nature with some rocks that were five million years old, completely away from any civilization. That was before the telecommunications that we now take for granted, so if anything happened it wasn’t going to be so easy for anyone to find you. But it was a phenomenal experience. We were on rafts with no motors, so it could be very quiet. The rapids in that part of the Colorado River can be huge. We did daily hiking up the side canyons. And I really came to understand the value and importance of protecting our natural resources so that we and many generations after us can enjoy them. It also triggered a lifetime goal of getting to all the amazing actual National Parks in our country—there are now 62, and I have been to all but three.

JW:  You stayed with environmental law then professionally?

LS:  After that, I primarily stayed with environmental law. I was at the Justice Department until 1984 working on environmental cases. After that, I went to National Public Radio as the general counsel for a while, and  during that time at National Public Radio, I began teaching environmental law as an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School—recruited by the Dean, who was a woman and wanted more women professors– and did that for 30 years. So, I kept my finger in environmental law all the way through. 

I went back to private practice and then during the Clinton administration, I went back to the Justice Department Environment and Natural Resources Division (same Division, new name), first as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General and eventually as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Division. I had a huge set of opportunities to help shape environmental law and be supportive of staff that were superb – both legal staff and support staff. We worked hard to be sure that women had good opportunities there.  

We had cases across the environmental spectrum, including defending President Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan, improving administration of the Superfund law, strengthening enforcement of the clean air and clean water laws; improving the way the cases related to the US trust relationship for Indian tribes were handled; reshaping and improving (really rescuing) the criminal enforcement program; assuring effective implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act; and I could go on. 

JW:  Now, I’m going to assume you also kept your fingers in the women’s movement and continued to be an activist in other ways. What can you tell us about that?

LS: I did, and I certainly cared about it. I was eager to see that  government lawyers be permitted to handle pro bono cases as part of their obligation to the bar. The matter was controversial because some felt that government lawyers were on the public payroll and  they should be doing only government work, and not go out and do pro bono work, even on their own time.  Of course, my view is that every government lawyer is a “real lawyer” with responsibilities of the profession.  

After a certain amount of work within the Justice Department on the legal aspects of the matter, and with enormous support from Attorney General Reno, who herself was both a feminist and committed to public interest and pro bono work, we got the Department to agree that government lawyers could take pro bono cases on their own time. Then, with another lawyer in the Division, I took a case to show that indeed not only did I think it was a good and important thing to do, but that I was willing to spend my own time doing it.  

The case was one on behalf of a woman who wanted custody of her child. It was a very challenging case. That was an example of keeping my finger in women’s law. I didn’t handle litigation much for women after I left the Center because I really wasn’t in a position to do it. I certainly talked to people about it and worked to assure that women’s perspectives were brought to bear on the full gamut of work I was doing, both at the Justice Department and afterward.

JW:  And are you currently involved in any activist activities?

LS:  Yes. After my time at Justice – I left because I was a political appointee and we all had to resign at the end of the Clinton Administration – I went to an environmental nonprofit briefly, then went back to private practice, and then I went to two other government agencies as General Counsel – the very small National Capital Planning Commission, and then during most of the Obama administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

I left NOAA on January 20, 2017, again because it was a political appointment, and I retired from federal government service at the end of the Obama administration. I’ve been retired about three and a half years. Of course, during that time there have been enormous assaults on the environment, on women’s issues and on voting rights and many other topics that I care deeply about. I have been involved in various ways in what I would call the environmental resistance. I have also done some work on voter protection during this time. I’ve certainly stayed active in the face of these enormous efforts to destroy what all of us have spent many years building.

JW:  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

LS: As I look back on my career, I contributed to protecting the environment through law, and I contributed to people (including the role of women and individual women) and to women. I have had the opportunity, for ourselves and the generations that follow, to make the air a little cleaner, the water and land a little safer, and our nation’s public lands a little more protected –what an honor.  The work I have done includes teaching people, mostly young people; mentoring, particularly young women, both lawyers and later scientists (NOAA is a science agency); and assuring a work place conducive to opportunities for women, both by hiring them and then being sure there was flexibility built into the approach to work, for example, so that people had good opportunities to take parenting  leave.

All of  that work was important to me as a contribution to the women’s movement, even though it wasn’t in a particular case. And that was progress. There were (many) times when I was the only woman in the room. I certainly have even recently lived through [the scenario of] saying something and then some man says [the same thing], and everyone says what a great idea he has – though I like to think we are beyond that by now. And I certainly continue to be a cranky voice against programs that have panels of only men, probably inadvertently – that continues to this day, shocking as I find it. 

While my career was not focused primarily on working on women’s legal issues, I have had a huge opportunity to contribute to women, particularly women lawyers, to be heard and to have fair treatment and opportunity in the workplace. I’ve also made significant contributions to environmental protection, though that is not the focus of this discussion.

JW:  Well, I would also say being a model to other women was a fabulous contribution that you made. So, I thank you for that.

LS:  Well, thank you. I am pleased I have had the opportunity to do that.