THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Marcia Devins Greenberger
“We have our ups, we have our downs. But we are moving forward and will ultimately get where we need to go.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, May 2019
MG: My name is Marcia Devins Greenberger. I was born in Philadelphia in 1946. It is now 2019 and I am celebrating my fiftieth wedding anniversary. When I got married in 1969 in Philadelphia it didn’t occur to me that I could have the option of not changing my name. Times have changed.
MJC: Do you want to give us a little background about what kind of family you came from?
MG: I grew up in a very middle-class life in Philadelphia. My grandparents were all Russian Jewish immigrants. And my maternal grandfather died before I was born – that is who I’m named after. His name was Marcus and I am Marcia. I never knew him, but my maternal grandmother, although she never lived with us, was very much a part of our life growing up – Jenny.
She was the person who sewed clothes for us and cooked all of the ethnic Jewish specialties from the part of Russia where she was from and told us the stories on her side of the family. My father’s parents had a corner grocery store in South Philadelphia. We would visit them every Sunday. It was a great treat because we would go into the store and they would have candies and other small treats for us
One of the great disappointments in my life was to learn after my father died that one of my colleagues at the Center, Judy Waxman, grew up in that South Philadelphia neighborhood and knew my grandparents. She used to go into their store as a little girl and buy something after school and because of course they knew her family and they knew her, they just put it on the tab. It was very wonderful to learn that. As I said, I was only sorry that she couldn’t tell my father, because he would just have burst with pride to know that she fond memories of them and that they were a part of her life.
MJC: Did you go to public school?
MG: I went to public school. I went to the neighborhood elementary school and junior high school. I walked to elementary school. I took public transportation to the junior high school and then in ninth grade I went to the Philadelphia High School for Girls, which was a public school. It was an all-city academic high school and there was Central High School, a block away, that was the equivalent for boys.
Actually, looking back on it, it was something that shaped my life quite a bit—that high school experience and its emphasis on succeeding. Although I was a product of the fifties and I graduated from high school in 1963 and most of the girls in my class expected to be teachers or nurses etc., it turned out that an African-American woman Shirley Franklin, became the mayor of Atlanta, and was a graduate of my high school. So many other accomplished people in varied fields ended up having gone to my high school, including Gloria Allred. The school produced young women who had a sense of their own skills and their own capabilities, even though the early expectations were that those skills and capabilities would be fulfilled within narrow lanes.
MJC: What about siblings?
MG: I have and had growing up two sisters. I was the middle one. There is five years between each of us. In a certain sense, by the time I was born my older sister was off in school and I was off in school when my younger sister was born. I felt very squeezed, because when my younger sister was born I moved and shared a bedroom with my older sister, which neither of us particularly liked. And then as my older sister got older and my younger sister was no longer a baby, she moved with me to share a room and my older sister got that room to herself. So that to me, not having a room of my own just epitomized what it meant to be in the middle. But the truth of the matter was my sisters were very important to me, of course, then as they are now. My older sister was one of my great mentors. I went to law school at a time when very few women did, and she was very supportive of that and very supportive of me and boosting my ego etc.
My mother, as the New York Times now calls it, was a stay at home parent and my father was a public-school teacher. He taught in the Philadelphia public school system, but he also taught in the evening program at Temple University. He was a mathematician and both my older and younger sisters became math majors in college.
There was never any question that I would go to college. My parents were very clear that they expected that we would get good grades, that we would achieve academically. There was also a sense that math and science were not out of bounds. That women and girls could be just as good at math as boys could be.
And as I said, my two sisters were math majors. I will never forget when in second grade, in the early first report period, I got a failing grade. Now what that was all about I cannot tell you, but my father was very clear that that was not going to stand. He tutored me every night and that continued through my last math class as a freshman in college, when I took calculus. With relief, I became a history major
My parents were very liberal Democrats and very politically aware. I would come home from school in the afternoons and the McCarthy hearings were on TV. We had policy and political discussions. I remember debates about Lyndon Johnson and Medicare and Medicaid, which they were very much in favor of. My father strongly supported unions for public school teachers. One of the big shocks in my life was going to elementary school during a Presidential election when, of course, my family was for Adlai Stevenson, and finding out that almost all the other kids were for Eisenhower. I had no idea till then that my family and I were in the minority That was an early lesson in the fact that elections don’t always go my way.
I was in high school during most of the Kennedy administration and it to me was just the utter epitome of glamour and positive change. Washington seemed a fabulous, sort of wonderland. If you could only work in Washington and be a part of government in an administration like the Kennedy administration. I was a freshman in college when he was assassinated and devastated – as of course was everybody – and like most people alive at that time have a very clear recollections of exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing when I learned the news
My high school, as I said, was very empowering, but within these narrow constraints. We had almost no sports teams for the girls – but we did send cheerleaders Dow the block to Central High School for their teams. At the time that disparity did not particularly faze me. Years later, there were cases brought after I went to law school and when I had begun working on women’s rights in Washington in the ’70s. These lawsuits challenged the inequalities between Girls High and Central.
The first case was brought under the Constitution, the 14th amendment equal protection clause, asserting that as was true in the case of race, separate can’t be equal for sex. The case asserted the legal principle without making much of a factual record showing inequalities. And the court basically – there was one justice who didn’t participate – they sort of left the status quo in place. The Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, which still very much exists, then brought the same case under the state Equal Rights Amendment, which existed in Pennsylvania and they developed the factual record of inequality in detail
That’s when I learned, for example, that Central had a much bigger library, Central had more teachers with advanced degrees than Girls High faculty had. Central’s science program was bigger. Central had a fund that alumni had raised for all kinds of enrichment programs and Girls High did not have those kinds of resources. And of course, the athletic programs, as I said, were completely and totally unequal.
So even though I thought I got a wonderful education at Girls High, and I did, and had wonderful teachers, by many, many objective measures, the all-male Central High School had a far more monetarily endowed and enriched program than Girls High had. Eventually, because of that lawsuit, Central had to accept girls. And so, they did. There were many girls that have gone to Central after that case in the ’70s.
The Philadelphia High School for Girls, as it was officially called, said it would accept boys, but there were a few that applied. By and large there were very few male students who wanted to go to Philadelphia High School for Girls in contrast to the number of girls wanting to go to Central– reflecting a difference in status, of course.
MJC: What’s your earliest recollection of becoming aware of sexism? It sounds like you had a pretty wonderful family in terms of their response to you as girls.
MG: I certainly was aware of differences. One of the things about being one of three girls, it wasn’t in my face every day growing up by any means. My mother’s sister was very close, and she had two girls too, so I had two female cousins. I wasn’t seeing boys being treated differently at home, though those differences were rampant in textbooks, on tv, in movies, and in our neighborhood.
When I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, they did not have a school of education that gave an undergraduate degree in teaching. But you could take extra credits in education classes beyond what you needed to get your bachelor’s degree that would allow you to get a certificate to be able to teach in Pennsylvania. I went to summer school to get those credits, because I figured that was what I would end up doing – becoming a history teacher in the public schools.
I certainly knew that the boys were thinking in terms of many more careers and many more options. While we belonged to the conservative branch of Judaism – it was not as socially liberal in its rules as the reform movement, but not as traditional in its rules as the orthodox movement – I was one of the first classes of girls allowed to have a Bat Mitzvah at the age 13, which was equivalent to boys having a Bar Mitzvah. But it was clearly second class. In the service, the girls could not read from the Torah, which was the holiest book.
There were three of us doing it on a Friday night. We couldn’t do it on a Saturday morning when a boy, usually by himself, would have his Bar Mitzvah. There have been changes since then. It never dawned on me there could ever be such a thing as a woman rabbi in those days. I was aware of these very clear lines and distinctions in what girls could do, what men and women did, despite my experiences at home.
In the Philadelphia public schools, we would walk home for lunch in elementary school through 6th grade, and I think about that today with amazement. I tell young women now that was the way the school system was set up, because there was an assumption that there would be a mother home in the middle of the day making lunch for her kids. And my mother was. Nobody’s father was home, as far as I knew, but everybody’s mother was. This was very much a middle-class row houses neighborhood as I said, and my father was a public-school teacher. This was not a wealthy area by any means.
In sixth grade I had a friend who used to go to a neighborhood diner for lunch and I thought that was the coolest thing. I asked my mother if I could go with her and she said fine. It turned out her mom had a job and couldn’t be home in the middle of the day at noon and then again at 3:00 when my friend came home from school. There was no after school care or anything like that, or sports or after school activities. That her mom had a job keeping her away from home throughout the day made a huge impression on me, one I remember to this day.
My mother didn’t learn to drive, nor did we have a car, until I was five years old. I talked about my grandparents’ corner grocery store. We had little neighborhood groceries, a butcher shop and a bakery within a block of our house. My mother would go every day or two and buy things fresh for the day. We had a refrigerator, but it was small, and we didn’t have much frozen food or anything of that sort. A homemaker was a very labor-intensive job then. We did not have a clothes dryer for many years, not a dishwasher. It was a lot of very hard work, that’s for sure, to be a quote unquote stay at home parent.
When I went to the University of Pennsylvania, I started as a commuter each day. But I really wanted to live at school and have a dormitory and campus-based life. While there were certainly a fair number of commuting students that went to Penn, the bulk of the student body was residential. At the time there wasn’t space for me to live in the dorms— there were no co-ed dorms and there were few women’s dorms.
The day John Kennedy died, I had an appointment with somebody at the housing office and I’d been practicing for a month to make my case about how hard my long commute was, how hard it was for me to go to the library, how important it was for me to be able to live in the dorms.
I was practicing my pitch as I was sitting outside her office, a nervous wreck waiting for my time to make my case. Then she came rushing out and she said to me, “I’m really sorry I can’t possibly meet with you now – you understand.” And left. And of course, I didn’t understand at all. I had no idea what in the world why and was completely crushed. I didn’t get to say a word, and it didn’t occur to me to go after her. I got on the subway to begin my commute home and that’s when I heard that Kennedy had been shot and everybody in the subway of course was in tears and upset. And it’s shocking even to this day to think about that day
As a history major, I had a very prominent member of the history department who was my senior thesis advisor. I asked him for advice on going on for a PhD in history, with the intent to teach at the college level. By my sophomore year, I was able to get a room in the dorms and so I did live on campus my final three years. I loved college. I loved all my courses. I loved the freedom of it. I loved the intellectual richness of courses in opera, English, art, political science and history itself. I loved being around varied faculty and students all the time.
But I was again confronted with different expectations for men and women. In my sophomore year, some of the women students wanted to start a women’s crew team. Crew was a very big sport at Penn. There are these beautiful boat houses and Penn has its own boathouse along the river. It was just part of the Philadelphia tradition. But the idea that women would have a crew team was deemed ridiculous out of the question, and rejected by the University
To go fast forward, my younger daughter went to Penn as an undergrad and we were helping her move into her freshman dorm – which had been the men’s dorm when I was there— and as we were helping her move in, several young women approached her and said, “Do you want to join the crew team?”
I thought, I’ve lived and gone to heaven. Here she is in this men’s dorm, which we always thought was so beautiful and steeped in tradition. And then, how great it was that they had all these sports teams for women, including crew.
When I went to Penn as a liberal arts major, I was accepted to the College for Women. The College was for men. The College for Women was a third the size of the College. There was also Wharton undergrad, overwhelmingly male, as was the School of Engineering. There was also a Nursing School, which was mostly women, but by and large the campus ratio was five to one, men two women. And we knew that, and the women all took pride and thought it was great. After all, we said, we were smarter than the guys – we had to be smarter to get in. Penn never had its College for Women named the way Radcliffe did for Harvard or Pembroke did for Brown in those days. That was true for a number of schools where the college for women had a separate name, separate admissions criteria etc. and by and large it was harder to be accepted as a woman than it would be as a young man getting in. Women just accepted it as a fact of life. Another thing we accepted was that the women had curfews and the male students did not. Those curfews were no joke. If you were a few minutes late that went on your record and if you had too many of those curfew violations you could be seriously disciplined.
This friend of mine was not appropriately signed out for a weekend. The men had no curfews, no sign-in or sign-out. None of that. She was a senior and hadn’t signed out properly. Her parents had not objected, but because she hadn’t signed out properly and we were worried she would not be allowed to graduate. By then we senior women were outraged by the unfairness of it all. The lack of women’s teams, admissions disparities and the other special rules for women. One last example, we had to wear skirts to dinner in the dorms. We had to wear skirts to classes. We were allowed to wear pants in the library on Sunday. But that was it. Those rules got looser over time, but they were based on the view that we had to be lady like.
Now back to that history professor of mine, and my plan to get a PhD. He told me words to the effect that “You should think long and hard about going through for a PhD program, because that can take six years and sometimes even more. And without a PhD, you’re going to end up with a master’s degree and then you will only be able to teach in high school anyway. And probably you will get married and have children and you’ll never finish that PhD. So, is this something you really want to do?” And at the time I thought that he was making a serious point and the process seemed daunting
I had two dear girlfriends at Penn who decided they were going to go to law school and told me I needed to come too. I did not know any lawyers growing up in my neighborhood. I never had given a thought to such a career move. Although going back to my thoughts about the Kennedy administration, I thought to myself, oh my goodness what could be more wonderful than somehow working in the government and public policy. Law sounded like it could be related. I thought, law school is three years not six years. I know how to take tests. That’s all you have to do in law school. I could just take tests. I don’t have to write a dissertation.
By then I had heard many stories of people who just froze over the dissertation and they finished their coursework, but they never got to their dissertation, never finished it. And that scared me, so I thought, well I can give law schools a try. And if worse came to worse and I didn’t finish it I’d go teach because I had my teaching degree that would let me teach and so I’d be OK. But I was not completely dissuaded from my original plan. I did apply for PhD programs and I also applied to law school. I ended up getting more financial aid for law school than the PhD programs. And so that was the decider for sure. And so, I went to law school with my two girlfriends for moral support
I have to tell you something else about the period of the ’60s. I graduated from college in ’67. The Vietnam War was raging and when I was senior, and we were applying to law school, graduate school deferments were in place, so middle class guys were able to get out of the war by going to graduate schools or law school. And as a result, most middle-class guys avoided going to this unpopular war.
I went to take the LSAT, the standardized test to apply to law school, with my two girlfriends. The three musketeers marching arm in arm together. Then these guys came screaming at us. “Why are you taking the LSAT – you’re going to take a seat away from some guy who really needs it and you’re going to send him to the war.” I should also say that at this time, by then I was getting more and more seriously about law school and we were really taken aback. We worried about the hostility we might face
The unfairness of the differential treatment between male and female students in admissions and these curfews etc. – that was bugging me. There were many things by the time I was finishing college that led to my sense that the difference in treatment was really not putting women on a pedestal as a court case said, it was putting women in a cage, We weren’t just being treated differently because we were being respected and our traditional female roles revered. Rather, we were being put into these separate lanes and separate roles that we were going to be diminished in status and economic wherewithal and the like.
I did go to law school – and I was about to say also, as a history major at Penn, this was not in some rural area. This was not biophysics. This was a history major. I never had one female professor my entire four years at Penn. I only realized that that was the case when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court and Janet Benshoof, a pioneering reproductive rights lawyer, said that when she had Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a teacher in law school that was the first female faculty member she’d ever had through college and law school.
And that made me stop and think, Oh my God how could that be? And then I realized I never had one at Penn undergrad or law school my whole seven years. I never had a female law professor. There were obviously some, but so few that I never had any. In fact, Elizabeth Warren was at Penn for a brief time. I didn’t have her.
I also skipped over the activism of the time. The civil rights movement developing, the anti-war movement developing, there were sit-ins, etc. and the leaders, especially the most visible ones, were largely male on campus. That was something that I experienced first hand
I went to Penn Law School. The class was about 250 people when we started in the fall of 1967, of which there were maybe 10 or 12 women. One of two friends who encouraged me to go in the first place went to Penn Law with me. I’m in touch with both of them to this day and they became quite successful practicing lawyers themselves.
In any event, the fall of my first year in law school, the fall of 1967, the Vietnam War had heated up so much that Johnson took graduate school deferments away. That’s when everything erupted, because the middle class could no longer avoid being drafted and going to war. Also, first year law students no longer could stay in law school, because it was no longer a deferment. Our class went from about two hundred and fifty people to about one hundred and ten or twenty. So, women became 10 out of [one hundred and] twenty [from] ten out of two hundred and fifty. That makes a difference.
And after our year, many more women started to come to law school and I think it was a confluence of the women’s movement and expanded horizons, and the social activism of the time. Also, I suspect that law schools saw women were more needed to fill their classes and pay tuitions. You can [see] the pattern in history repeating itself, with women stepping in to fill roles left by men during war time, epitomized by Rosie the Riveter.
When I started, the women law students stood out like sore thumbs, we were completely visible. There were so few of us. Everybody knew who we were. We were called on for the rape cases. We were badgered by some of the law professors and given a hard time. Even so, I loved law school. I had great friends that I made, both male and female. In fact, I met my husband [of] now almost 50 years. He was in my first-year class.
But that is a story in itself. One of the insults that we had to contend with was that we were only in law school to meet a husband, we were never going to practice, we were never serious about a law career needed to support our family. We were taking the seat of a more deserving and serious male and sending him off to war on top of that.
So, there I am meeting my husband to-be. This budding relationship was most certainly not anything that I want to have publicly out and bandied about. So, we tried, except for our best friends, to keep this relationship very much under wraps. When we came back to school in the fall after our second year married, we were very pleased that a lot of people had no idea we were even seeing each other.
Part of getting married to me then was automatically changing my name. I came back in my third year with a different name. I didn’t mind changing my name because everybody in law school knew what my real name was — the name I was born with. But in my third year I also got a part-time job working in a law firm to earn some extra money and enhance my skills. I was very upset that at this law firm they didn’t know me as anybody but Marcia Greenberger. They didn’t know I wasn’t really Marcia Greenberger. I was really Marcia Devins. I realized then how important my name was to my identity. I had my law degree in my new last name but kept Devins as my middle name
One of the things that was quite dramatic was the lack of interest by many law firms and many employers in the expanding number of women law grads. We came to Washington because my husband Michael had a year-long clerkship with a federal judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He was a wonderful man and judge, Carl McGowan.
We expected to live eventually in Philadelphia. I was so mortified that I’d never lived anywhere but Philadelphia growing up, through undergraduate college, and through law school that at least that year in Washington would be exciting. So, he took that clerkship and I started interviewing for jobs. A clerkship for me was going to be very hard. First of all, the law faculty are very important in helping recommend you to particular judges and a number of the faculty said that I would have a difficult time getting a clerkship because many judges did not hire women clerks. One judge, for example, was known to say, “I can’t have a woman clerk, because my secretary, who I’ve had for decades, would never be a secretary for a young woman.”
Somebody told me that they didn’t think that Thurgood Marshall would ever take a woman because he curses all the time. Obviously he couldn’t curse in front of a woman. And so, a judge who did have this superstar woman called up Thurgood Marshall and said, “She is a superstar: you must take her.” And she survived the cursing. He loved her. She became, I think, one of the first tenured law professors at Yale. Brilliant wonderful woman.
Some of the judges’ hesitance to hire women were just myths, like Justice Marshall. But in many instances the judges really would not. And judges were not alone in assuming only men should be lawyers. I went to several different law firms to apply for a job. There was one law firm I remember where one of the partners said to me, “You know we’ve never had a woman lawyer and we really can’t.” When I asked, “Why not?” he said, “Well you know Washington is not a safe city. There is so much crime and our young associates work really late at night. And so, what if something happened to you? We could never forgive ourselves.”
I walked out of his office into the hall, speechless. Those were the days it before computers and people were in all night typing pools in these big law firms, so that when the lawyers edited a draft by hand, the all-night typing pool would have a fresh clean draft ready for them in the morning. Guess who was working in those all-night typing pools? Women! And they seemed to be able to take those risks with their safety. And those partners never seemed to think that they could never forgive themselves if something happened on their way home from work late at night
And it occurred to me when I was in that hallway that there was this all-night typing pool working away for that law firm. But I didn’t march myself back into that partner’s office and tell him I could do with whatever security they offered for those women and it would be fine with me. I never forgave myself for that lack of gumption. I have told that story many times over the years to young women lawyers and law students. In those days I was not the most aggressive or assertive person, but I was getting angrier and angrier.
I did take a job as the first woman associate at a wonderful tax law firm and to skip forward through a variety of circumstances, Arthur Goldberg ended up working with that law firm and using some of the associates to work on cases with him. I had the opportunity to work with Arthur Goldberg, who of course had been a Supreme Court justice and Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration and on and on. An extraordinary person. And he took me seriously and he edited my work and he went over what I needed to do and how to do better. He was really wonderful mentor.
Well he had agreed to chair the board of one of the early public interest law firms, the Center for Law and Social Policy. It was set up in 1969 and the whole point of it was to provide legal representation for unrepresented groups like people who cared about the environment – if you care about clean water and clean air most individuals don’t have the money to go hire a lawyer to represent you. But the industry has money to represent its interests. If you [need] consumer protection, same problem etc.
Those were the kinds of issues the Center for Law and Social Policy was working on. It had an arrangement with five law schools where law students would get a semester of credit for working at the Center for Law and Social Policy. Well it was basically all male lawyers; mostly male law students and the support staff were women. Many college graduate women of course, you know, were channeled into these administrative jobs.
The law students were beginning to include more women. The female administrative staff, supported by the female students, staged a revolt in 1972. Ruth Bader Ginsburg had started to bring her cases and she had won the first one in the Supreme Court under the Equal Protection Clause in 1971. She started a Women’s Right Project at the ACLU in 1972. Congresswomen such as Bella Abzug were starting to introduce legislation to prohibit sex discrimination. Name change issues were beginning to come to the fore etc. Title 1X, for example, was passed in 1972
These administrative support staff and students had four demands. They wanted more women lawyers to be hired. They wanted the Center to work on women’s rights issues and start Women’s Rights Project. They wanted to be paid better, instead of being paid unfairly, because their jobs were quote unquote women’s jobs. And no more serving coffee.
The young guys who were at the Center for Law and Social Policy were very willing to accept their demands. Arthur Goldberg told me, because he was the chair of the board about this development. And I heard about it in other ways. I always wanted to have a public policy and public interest job, and by then was fed up with all the sex discrimination I had witnessed. I ended up interviewing and getting the job to start a Women’s Rights Project at the Center.
I became the first lawyer in Washington working full time on women’s rights. There was far more to do than I could possibly handle, even with the willing help of other Center for Law and Social Policy lawyers. I set about to get some foundation funding to expand the Women’s Rights Project and then was able to hire a second lawyer, Lois Schiffer.
At the same time that I started, the Center had hired another woman lawyer to work on health law issues and other Center work, Margy Kohn, whose heart was in women’s rights. With more funding, I was able to add Margy to the Women’s Rights Project staff full time. And so, we grew.
When the Carter administration came in 1976, Lois Schiffer left to work in the Justice Department. And so, we hired Nancy Duff Campbell to come. She had a background in welfare law and poverty law and the effects on women. She was able to develop our work in that area in particular. And by 1981 we had become half the size of the Center for Law and Social Policy. It didn’t make sense to be a project anymore.
And so, we became the National Women’s Law Center. And at the time former Congresswoman Patsy Mink was on our board and we were debating what kind of name [we should have] and we were thinking of cute names or silly names and we thought we’ll just pick something simple, the Women’s Law Center. And then she said put National in front to sound important and reflect our broad reach. And so, we became the National Women’s Law Center.
When we started it was such a generic sounding name that people would say, “Oh I’ve heard of you.” So, we thought, we had picked something good, because it was the kind of thing that sounded like, oh well we’ve been there for a long time. So that’s how we began. I stepped down from the Center almost two years ago. It will be two years ago this summer 2019. It was the summer of 2017.
Fatima Goss Graves is the head of the Center now. She was our senior vice president for programs before and had been at the Center for 10 years in various roles. She’s just a superstar. I don’t know if I said explicitly that Duffy Campbell and I left to start the National Women’s Law Center and we became Co-Presidents of the Center from the beginning at the National Women’s Law Center. It evolved and grew, and we really wanted to continue our substantive work and we didn’t want to have all of the administrative and fundraising burdens that one person would have to have.
We thought of ourselves more in a law firm model than we did as we evolved. There isn’t usually one person that has a very visible role in law firms. And so, we thought that way is probably a very female way too. We were a lot less hierarchical. But it made a lot of sense by the time that we left that there be one person at the head. And so, Fatima is at the head now.
We went from this one person having to figure out how am I going to keep myself focused on the most pressing matters in 1972 when I started, to there are now over 90 people at the National Women’s Law Center. Obviously Trump has reminded people that there is a lot of work to be done for women. The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund is housed at the National Women’s Law Center. And so, it’s got those 90 people more than busy full time. It’s amazing.
MJC: That’s wonderful history on the National Women’s Law Center. Thank you for all of that. 1972 when the Center was founded was a hot bed of feminism in Washington and everywhere around the country. Would you describe for history what that atmosphere was like and working with other people and how the politics worked? And just give us some insights into that experience.
MG: I was so fortunate when I think about having been born when I was. Being in a place where I could be in the beginning of this new wave of feminism. I got my job because of that wave of feminism; because of the women who were the support staff and the law students who had their list of demands. I must say they also insisted on interviewing and helping to select the person who would figure out what this new Women’s Rights Project would do. Washington had also been a place where more women had come to work in the government, which had been discriminatory. There was no doubt about it – but compared to the private sector [it] was much more welcoming.
And so, there was a much more of a supportive sense of women acting in a way that was collegial than in some other cities. When I started in 1972, there had been a Women’s Legal Defense Fund that had just been founded the year before. It was modeled after the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the idea of the civil rights movement and really the key role that lawyers were able to play for movement change.
But when the Women’s Legal Defense Fund was started it was all volunteer lawyers. And interestingly enough a wonderful woman, Brooksley Born who became very prominent in many ways and was the first woman lawyer and she was brilliant. Graduated first in her class from Stanford Law School. She got a clerkship on the same court as my husband a number of years earlier but with the one judge who would ever take women. There was only one at the time who would. And it was also at a time when Supreme Court justices were assumed not to take women lawyers and so most of those judges neither had women as clerks to suggest to be clerks to the Supreme Court justices etc. or the faculty members didn’t promote them.
She went to what has become one of the biggest law firms in the country, Arnold and Porter. And she was the first woman so far as we know in a major national law firm to make partner working part time. She was exceptional and brilliant and ended up winning a Profile in Courage award because of her work in the government etc. She is just an extraordinary person.
Well she wrote a speech about all the legal ways that women were disadvantaged. And she gave it to the Junior League in the District of Columbia, which was a volunteer organization of very intelligent women. But it was thought to be women of high social standing. Certainly, Caucasian women. There was no diversity of the Junior League that one would think of at the time. They were charitably minded. But the charities were certainly not thought of as social activist organizations by any means.
Well the women of the D.C. Junior League were so outraged by Brooksley’s speech, that they gave her money and that money was able to be used to hire the first person to work for the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, Judy Lichtman in 1974. And when I came to the Center for Law and Social Policy in 1972, there were virtually only men on the board and almost all male lawyers. And so that didn’t seem appropriate.
We set up an advisory board and Brooksley Born chaired our advisory board and remained the chair of the board of the National Women’s Law Center for over 40 years, seeing us through our growth. She and another lawyer who became a board member of ours, Marna Tucker, a very prominent lawyer in family law in this area, taught some of the first women the law classes in Washington and they taught in Georgetown and American University etc..
Marna was working at the American Bar Association and had become active with the American Bar Association. They had nationwide reach and formed a women’s group within the ABA, which supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which supported Roe v. Wade etc. When I started as one of the first early women lawyers in Washington – let alone in the women’s movement – the women lawyers in Washington and firms were very few and we would have lunch together and talk about issues and could we wear pants to the office etc. And what was it like to work with the support staff and we are women and so are they and yet we need to supervise them and how do we handle all that as young women, let alone the male partners. So, there was that component of sisterhood when I first came; when I was actually at a law firm.
Then when I was at the National Women’s Law Center in ’72 and putting this group together, I had ties to some of these women lawyers throughout the government and in private firms who wanted to be supportive. And so, some helped us. Barbara Bergman, who was an economist, was an early member of our advisory committee. She was teaching at AU and developing theories about equal pay and discrimination in the workplace and how the economy was structured in a way that disadvantaged women.
I met Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, who was often called the Mother of Title IX and she was just starting a project for a higher education association to work on women’s rights and she was very interested in helping figure out how do we get Title IX in force and helping me put the theory of a lawsuit together, one of the first that I brought. It was against what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare for not enforcing Title IX. It took over three years for the Department to issue regulations to implement and enforce Title 1X. HEW said until they issued Title 1X regulations they basically weren’t going to enforce it.
So, we brought a lawsuit against them with Bunny Sandler’s help. There was Donna Shavlik also starting with the American Council on Education, a women’s committee to help. The foundation world was also beginning to fund women’s activities to some degree. Ford Foundation was one of the leaders and Susan Beresford who eventually became the president of the Ford Foundation in those early days was the first program officer to have women’s needs as a focus. When we got a grant and were able to hire a second lawyer, it was Susan Beresford that gave us that grant before she ever really was a formal program officer and she worked her way through the ranks and ultimately became the president of the Ford Foundation.
There were some women’s legal groups starting – the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, of course, for one and talking to Ruth Bader Ginsburg in those early years about issues and cases etc. There was Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco. I mentioned the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia in the ’70s when they first got started, I think it was in 74. We were the fiscal agent before they got their tax-exempt status, so that when they got their early grants, they could run through the Women’s Rights Project of the Center for Social Policy, to help them get started.
There was a group that Jane Picker started in Cleveland. There were few of us and we were all in touch and talking in those days by phone and in meetings when we could. There wasn’t any e-mailing. Then there were the women’s groups and as I said we started and thought of ourselves as a legal group with clients early on. But we evolved and then began to think of ourselves as a group of activist lawyers that would work on lawsuits and help with legislation and help with getting regulations out etc. We were part of the women’s movement.
While we were a legal group and part of the legal world to some degree, we began to identify ourselves more and more as a women’s organization. And so that lawsuit that Bunny Sandler helped us bring, we represented Women’s Equity Action League, the National Organization, the Federation of Organizations for Professional Women, which was getting started to have women’s caucuses and all of the professional associations get together and have an umbrella group. American Women in Science. We had six different women’s organizations that were plaintiffs in our case suing then HEW for not enforcing Title IX.
We picked particular areas to focus on. Obviously with one lawyer, then two lawyers and three lawyers we had to focus our work. In 1981,we were only four lawyers when we started the National Women’s Law Center with law student help etc. and pro bono help of course. We focused on education, employment, health – we got the help of other Center for Law and Social Policy lawyers. When Duffy came, we added a particular area of poverty specifically.
When I started in 1972, I also turned to the unions to work together on employment problems women faced There was a wonderful woman, Ruth Weyand, who worked for the IUE, International Electrical Workers. She was trying to bring women’s rights cases for the unions and thinking in women’s rights terms. And so, one of our first cases that I brought in 1974 was against General Electric with Ruth Weyand, who had sued General Electric on behalf of women because their health insurance and disability plans did not cover pregnancy and did not even include complications of pregnancy.
So, if you were out because you had either a routine delivery and or couldn’t come back to work for say six weeks of a period of disability, or if you had complications, you couldn’t be covered. But they covered everything else. They covered skiing accidents, they covered injuries from fights, they covered every possible other condition; but if it was pregnancy related – no. So, we argued in court that that exclusion was a form sex discrimination prohibited by Title V11.
That case ultimately went to the Supreme Court and with the Justices split a majority held that sex discrimination does not include pregnancy discrimination. So, we had to go back and working with the women’s movement and all women’s organizations, we passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which was passed in 1978 and became effective in 1979. That Act amended Title V11 to say that it’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes a prohibition against pregnancy discrimination
The women’s movement became very cohesive I think in Washington. There was a Coalition for Women and Girls in Education that was formed by many women’s organizations to try to get the Title IX regulations issued. So, while we brought the lawsuit, there was also a big coalition working on exerting political pressure and trying to meet with the Administration officials. One of the things that held up those regulations was intercollegiate athletics, because while Title IX was passed in 1972 and it prohibited sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal funds, it was passed at a time when there was a feeling that the Equal Rights Amendment may not be go anywhere, but there needs to be equal access to and no discrimination in education.
But all of a sudden it dawned on the athletic establishment and football primarily, but men’s basketball and men’s sports in general, that Title 1X applied to athletics too. They began to think, oh no we can’t have that. So, they were lobbying all of HEW and Joseph Califano who was then the Secretary of HEW and others to exclude athletics from coverage of Title 1X. There was no legal rationale and our Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, which had many members, all the women’s organizations at the time were organized and fighting to keep athletics covered by Title 1X.
In bureaucratic fashion, the Department was sitting on these regulations rather than take on all of the political fights with whatever side they decided against. Finally, with our lawsuit and with all the political pressure, HEW issued those regulations. They set out basic principles around intercollegiate athletics, but the schools said we can’t understand what these basic principles mean, we can’t possibly figure out how to implement Title 1X in athletics.
HEW said we’ll give you three years to phase in compliance. The schools thought if it was three years to begin to comply, we’ll worry about it in three years and in the meantime we’ll try to get amendments passed in Congress to get athletics out. All the women’s groups were fighting, and the Women’s Sports Foundation was set up. There were women’s caucuses, women’s organizations that were multifaceted like NOW. There were others that had very specific areas of focus. There was the National Women’s Political Caucus in those days and also trying to get in a bipartisan way more women in political office.
And so, the women’s movement had many different organizations. Of course, there were the natural rivalries and competition to some degree, but I think it was a uniquely cooperative movement during that period of time. When President Carter was elected, there was a big meeting of women’s groups and women’s leaders. There were probably a hundred women in this room, and we all had met to come up with an agenda of what we would ask the president of the United States.
Of course, there were many different requests. But one thing we put on the agenda was to appoint more women judges and judges who would understand the importance of women’s rights. The Carter administration was sending judicial nominations to the American Bar Association for them to review and see if they were qualified, but also to the National Bar Association, which was an association of African-American lawyers that had set up and had national prominence in the days when the American Bar Association was discriminatory. While they were women’s bar associations around the country, they didn’t have the same kind of public policy orientation.
We wanted to have a women’s organization to review these nominations along with the ABA and the National Bar Association. So, I and a few others got Millie Jeffries, who was at that point the head of the National Women’s Political Caucus, to ask Carter to also submit to a women’s Legal organization too, to be sure that they had a demonstrated commitment to equal justice for women
He said yes he would. So, then we had to create an organization that would do that job. We set up a women’s judicial screening panel, with a wide array of national women’s organizations on an advisory board, including the National Women’s Law Center, and individual women lawyers around the country to interview prospective judicial nominees and prepare a report on their commitment to equal justice. Carter significantly expanded the number of women judges on the bench, and selected many superb judges
This was a time of expanding possibilities. There will of course always be great opponents – whether it was the men’s sports world, or of course once Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, anti-choice opponents. Immediately after Roe was decided, the Center and I became enmeshed in an ongoing battle to keep Roe v Wade in force
One of the first things I did was in 1973 was convene a meeting of organizations to look at Roe v. Wade and the ways that it was vulnerable and how to figure out ways of fighting back. We hosted that meeting for a number of different lawyers from women’s organizations and those who were working on reproductive rights to come. The law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun, who had written the opinion and helped write it with Justice Blackmun, had come to work at the Center for Law and Social Policy. He participated in the meeting with me. So that was an example of making use of the quite wonderful lawyers, male and female, that were at the Center for Law and Social Policy in those early days.
And you know much of what we predicted has come true. To this day we are in this horrendous fight to keep Roe v. Wade. It has been hanging by a thread, constantly being chipped away. So, there are fights that I think we’ve put to rest to some degree. Should women play sports? I think everybody takes great pride in the women’s soccer players etc. but there is still huge discrimination in pay and opportunities and support and scholarships. All that is still there, but it’s night and day compared to what it used to be. But the fight around Roe v. Wade is as intense as ever.
MJC: What would you count as your major accomplishments?
MG: I think probably that case, the WEAL case, which was representing many of the women’s organizations. Women’s Equity Action League was the first, so it was called that. It went on for 16 years and we got those regulations ultimately pried loose with all the political fighting. When the judge was calling in the Department of Justice lawyer representing then HEW as to why they shouldn’t be held liable for not enforcing the law. The court kept jurisdiction of the case and they had to keep reporting to us.
We got the athletic clarification regulations out. Finally. We got many more things finally pried loose from that case after 16 years. I would say not only we were part of the lobbying movement, but we brought legal skills to bear and that was one of the first cases I brought and stuck with that for 16 years. I’m very proud of that. My role in getting the Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed, and also getting protections against sexual harassment are also things I am proud of. Also, my work on women’s health, and getting many protections for women in the Affordable Care Act, is a great source of pride. And of course, I am especially proud of creating the National Women’s Law Center and the enormous impact it has had in advancing the rights of women, girls and their families. It’s focus on low income women and women of color is especially important
MJC: Any major disappointments?
MG: I think one of the things that is disappointing is the antipathy to women’s reproductive rights by too many elected officials. I’m also disappointed that we have to fight so hard to keep other gains, like the ACA. The fact that we still have such a big wage gap and have yet to have a woman President means we have much yet to accomplish and secure I wish that the huge income inequality that we’ve only seen expand with women and children at the bottom end of that income equality – we had been more successful in reducing. I wish we had also been more successful than we have been in bringing some of the support systems for women to be able to be in the paid workforce and to change that mindset of the woman who’s at home for lunch and then at three o’clock in the afternoon. And that’s how the whole workforce system is envisioned – could be changed for early education for childcare, for paid family leave. I think we have much to be proud of, but much work to be done.
I think that the only other thing that I want to just make a little bit more explicit is all of these women’s concerns at the lower end of the economic ladder as well as the glass ceiling barriers that women were facing have a commonality. And one of the things is to bring it to the #Metoo movement, which is so painful today. To see the depth and the breadth of harassment that’s as hard boiled and as cynical as I thought I have become over all these years.
I was taken aback by how much was being reported through the #Metoo moment, let alone how much is still unreported and women still afraid to come forward and tell their story and properly so. And what was especially empowering was the women in Hollywood who used their voices to discuss their own harassment wanting very explicitly through Times Up to set up not only a legal mass mechanism and a legal defense fund at the National Women’s Law Center to help women at the lower end of the economic spectrum, so that McDonald’s can be sued – which the Center has just done. Or representing women at Wal-Mart or some of the other women who are have not had the economic wherewithal to protect themselves.
Also, that they would stand shoulder to shoulder with these women in their fights and to see the common causes that can be made and see women starting to run for office in greater numbers. We saw in 2018 the huge election victories and now the big debates about is this a year where we could actually see a woman as president. I didn’t talk about Hillary Clinton epitomizing this. There were times when we have needed to have a very powerful woman in the room to negotiate for us and when Hillary was the first lady of Arkansas that long ago, we turned to her to be in that room along with Vernon Jordan around some civil rights legislation that we were passing. A story that isn’t well known.
Some of those women who were young associates with me and who then ultimately were able to push through and become partners and become big leaders in the American Bar Association or in the government like Brooksley Born or Ann Bingham who became the first woman assistant attorney general for antitrust and who became a big advocate for women’s rights to this day. Or others that women fought to open up these jobs for are turning around and giving back and not forgetting that they need to support not only their sisters pushed through, but also those who are less fortunate than they.