THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Working Tirelessly to Improve Opportunities for Children with Disabilities.
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, July 2019
MK: My name’s Margy Kohn. I was born in New York City in a blizzard in 1947. I was the first of my three siblings. I grew up in New York City and I went to college at Swarthmore, outside of Philadelphia. I returned to New York City for law school at Columbia and after that I moved to Washington.
MJC: Can you talk more about your family and its influence perhaps on feminism or any other aspects?
MK: My mother was a college graduate and wanted to go on to graduate school. She majored in math, but her father said a college degree was enough for any woman and he was not going to support her in anything more advanced. She worked after college on the Manhattan Project doing calculations. She told me that she was fortunate because she knew what she was working on; she was working on submarine netting as opposed to anything more atomic.
She then taught math and became a homemaker when she had me. She went back to work after I went to college as a travel agent. My father was very traditional, he came from St. Louis, MO. He was also a lawyer and growing up I would hear at the dinner table, we had a meeting with so-and-so, typical woman lawyer, and so I grew up thinking I don’t think I want to be a lawyer.
My father did corporate law and trust and estates and that didn’t really excite me. So, by the time I finished college, I had thought about being a teacher or social worker, but then I found out that there was something called Legal Services. There were lawyers who actually did civil rights work and worked to change the inequalities in our society and that was exciting to me. Based on that, I decided I would go to law school.
MJC: When did you become aware of a women’s movement?
MK: I became aware of a women’s movement in college when I was the president of the Women’s Government. There wasn’t a Men’s Government; there was a Women’s Government and a Student Council. I became the head of the Women’s Government, which I then decided was used to restrict the opportunities and control women in ways that men were not being controlled. For example, you had to be in by a certain hour, back to your dormitory and if you wanted to spend a weekend off campus you had to sign out or you might need to get parental permission or consent. Those were things that were not requirements for men.
I held a referendum and we abolished the Women’s Government, so the college didn’t have that as a tool to restrict women. After I graduated, the campus opened up socially, so that there were fewer restrictions on visitations in the dormitories. Maybe a year or two after that there were coed dorms, not exclusively, but things had changed dramatically. I became aware of the inequities then and when I got to law school I had already gone on marches for women’s rights and against the war in Vietnam. I’d gone to Washington a couple of times for them. I joined a fledgling women’s organization at Columbia Law School. The representation of women was very slim.
MJC: Do you remember what percentage?
MK: Yes, there were thirty women in my law school class, we started with about 380 students total and graduated with 410, of which 30 were women, so it was well under 10%. We had a lot of men returning into our class who had been in the National Guard Reserves, or military service or in the Peace Corps or something like that, which is why our class got enlarged. But I had the experience in law school of classmates in casual conversation asking me, “Why are you in law school? You’re taking the space of a guy who needs to be in law school.”
Of course, the irony is that I’ve practiced law all my life since I graduated from law school with a very short exception when I taught elementary school in the middle of my career. I was really offended by that. The days when they would ask women only about the rape cases or things of that nature, that had passed at Columbia. There were no women faculty on tenure track then. There were two women who taught at the law school, one of whom became a mentor of mine, who ran with a tenured professor at the clinic funded by EEOC to teach law students about Title VII.
Because Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was beginning to be a tool for civil rights enforcement, they needed a cadre of non-government lawyers to enforce the law, and so this clinic trained law students in a clinical setting. A friend and I started a Women in the Law course, when I was a law student, and it was non-credit. We brought in speakers one night a week to make presentations on topics of the law that were of particular importance to women, including public benefits, employment law, trusts and estates, family law, just about everything that was pertinent.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a faculty member at Columbia after I left. I graduated in 1972.
When I was in law school, there was a lot of talk about the fact that women couldn’t get jobs at the big law firms. I wondered why that was happening, because certainly many of my classmates who were women were on Law Review and Law Review was the creme de la creme. I wasn’t on Law Review, but I did well. But the women who were on Law Review, many of them interviewed for employment at the big law firms and did not get jobs. As did I.
There were about 10 women from NYU Law School and Columbia who filed complaints of sex discrimination at the New York City Commission on Human Rights, because we were denied employment at large New York City law firms. We alleged that there was sex discrimination that was causing our failure to obtain employment, because all of us had very good academic records and many were on Law Review.
We all had the same lawyers, Harriet Rabb who ran the EEOC clinic and Carol Bellamy who had been active in a large firm and was very active in New York City politics. They were our lawyers. At that time, Eleanor Holmes Norton was the Chair of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. We filed the complaints there and mine was the first to have a finding that there was reason to believe there was discrimination.
The next step in those cases was that you either had a hearing at the commission, which could then be appealed through the New York State courts, or you had the option of filing an action in the United States District Court. Our lawyers made the decision that we would file in the United States District Court. We were assigned to Judge Lasker; the name of the firm was Rogers & Wells. After many years, it was certified as a class action.
There was some law made on what you need to have a class action under these circumstances and whether future applicants would be included in the count of people in the class. Ultimately the case was settled with a very well publicized consent decree, which required the law firm to adjust its hiring practices. It would be offering applicants, who were women, employment for a summer associates, and for entry level jobs at the same percentage as they were represented in the law schools that that school typically recruited at.
So, there may be eight law schools that they went to typically and in each case, the numbers of women were increasing in the enrollment. Their obligations would increase – it was over a five-year period. My lawyers were entitled to confer with any applicant who had been made an offer but declined and they had to make up the deficit in their offers to women the following year if they didn’t reach the numbers that they were required to make.
There was reporting for five years and then it was over, but I think the impact of the lawsuit was in the publicity. In a class action you have to have a public hearing which enables members of the class to come forward and oppose the settlement to ensure that members of the class could either opt out if they didn’t like the settlement or to enable them to have the opportunity to inform the court that this proposed settlement was unfair and should not be approved by the court.
Well that didn’t happen in this case. There was a very extensive article in The New York Law Journal after the case settlement was approved laying out the terms of the settlement and the allegations and so forth, and of course the law firm did not admit to any discrimination. Part of the settlement was that they had to hire a woman partner, and they’d never had a women partner, they had never had more than two women lawyers working at the law firm at any given time.
Those people had some special connection to people in the law firm, they worked either on trust and estates or what was called then blue-sky work, which was the sort of backroom corporate transactional work that did not require them to interface with the major clients. They also had to change their practice of membership in men only social clubs that the firm used for entertainment, recruitment, and business purposes. The case became part of the first Women in the Law textbook, some of it was by name, some of it was without names and of course it only examined the aspect of employment, which was entry level, not partnership really, except for the one partner. They chose someone who had been a member of the SEC, a woman, and she was made partner and that was great for her.
I got an introduction to discrimination in the law early on. Initially, my first job after law school was at the Center for Law and Social Policy, which was a newly formed public interest law firm in Washington, DC. I initially worked on health and mental health issues and then after about a year and a half I moved back to New York and worked in another nonprofit organization that provided civil legal services to inmates in the New York City jails.
At that time on any given day, there were approximately eight thousand inmates in the New York City jails, either serving short term sentences, a year or less, or awaiting trial, or brought down back from their upstate prisons to testify or to be tried on other charges. I was assigned the two adolescent male prisons. There was a prison in the Bronx, in Queens, in Brooklyn, there was Manhattan, and then there was the women’s house at Rikers and the two adolescent units in New York State at that time.
Individuals charged with crimes as adults started at 16, but 16 to 21-year-olds had to be housed separately from the adult population. There were two buildings filled with adolescent defendants. They were called adolescent, some of them were young adults and some of them were adolescent. I was their go to person for civil problems.
MJC: Were you the only lawyer for those two buildings?
MK: Yes, for civil problems. Each of those individuals had counsel for their criminal charge, but the kinds of civil problems that they had were, for example, they were paying for enrollment in a training program and they couldn’t attend, so they wanted to get out and stop having to pay. Or they had leased a car, or their uncle died, and they needed to get money to Puerto Rico for his burial and they had some savings that they wanted to send to Puerto Rico but there was no one to do that.
Or they wanted to marry, and in those days, you could have the judge who handled your criminal matter, marry you in a civil service either before or after your criminal matter was heard. You didn’t get any time off, but you could marry. The thinking of the day was that it was better to be married than not, in terms of getting parole.
Many of my clients were already fathers of children and they wanted to be able to return to the community as soon as possible. I was a necessary component of making this happen, if it was going to happen. There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle, but they needed my help. I was a little conflicted about it because I felt that the women they wanted to marry were not always going to be pleased with that decision somewhat later down the line, but it was my obligation to represent them.
I did that for almost two years and then I went back to Washington and rejoined the Center for Law and Social Policy. I picked up some cases that I had started working on before. I returned in 1975 and in a couple of years the National Women’s Law Center evolved out of the Center for Law and Social Policy and I was one of the three founders of the National Women’s Law Center along with Marcia Greenberger and Duffy Campbell. We had a triumvirate type of governance with three of us being co-directors.
I was there until 1985 and during that time I worked on Title IX extensively, getting women into non-traditional jobs and some on women’s health issues. Those were the primary things and getting the federal government to enforce Title IX, which was a major undertaking. During that time, we were awarded some grants from the federal government to train other lawyers around the country on Title IX.
We also were the lawyers for a group of about 10 women at Temple University, all student athletes or captains of their teams, who sued Temple University for violations of the Pennsylvania State Constitution, the United States Constitution and Title IX for failing to provide women athletes with the same benefits and opportunities that the University provided to men.
This was one of the first big Title IX university level lawsuits brought by students. We had a few bends in the road, there were some developments with the Grove City lawsuit and getting the Title IX statute amended, but eventually there was a victory for the women. There were all kinds of inequities there, inequities some of which still exist today on many campuses, but some of which I think probably don’t exist anymore, because they were so flagrant and so unfair.
I spent a lot of time working on that case. I got a real appreciation of how even at a school like Temple that had a fairly extensive array of teams and opportunities for women in sports, the access to full scholarships, travel arrangements, practice fields, locker rooms, accommodations when they were on the road, how you get to the off campus games, do you fly, do you take the bus across the country, was better for male student athletes than female student athletes. What were the arrangements? The inequities were stark. I was involved with a lot of women’s organizations while I was at the National Women’s Law Center and worked in coalitions with civil rights organizations and other women’s organizations.
Title IX was getting off the ground and people were just sort of finding out what it was. It was very interesting – some of it was not so pleasant. Dealing with the unions and the construction worker establishment. I spoke at a number of gatherings of those groups and they were very hostile to the entry of women into their world. With the entry of women, they felt that they were losing the exclusivity of their club where they could have the freedom to be obnoxious and offensive in what they said about women and how they treated women at the workplace.
We represented and worked with a lot of women who, in fact some of the women who worked to build the Blue Plains cleaning facility for Public Works in the District of Columbia. They were carpenters, plumbers, and other trades people and they experienced horrible things. When I went to talk to some of these groups, they were as hostile to me as they were to the women who appeared on the job to do the job. It was not pleasant.
Women should stay in their place, which is not building the water treatment plant. We used the Office of Federal Contract Compliance to pressure those building corporations that were building public works facilities with federal money. If they had federal contracts, they had to comply with the percentages and work towards improving their diversity of the workforce, both on racial grounds and ethnic origin and based on gender. Of course, they said, “Well, we can’t find any women who want these jobs.”
MJC: Did you work on the Hill?
MK: I did work on the Hill one year for the attempt to unravel the results of the Grove City case, which had determined that if there was federal financial aid going into scholarships for a college or university, the only part of that college or university that had to comply with Title IX was the financial aid program/office. Even though it meant that people were scattered throughout the college and university schools enabled to go to school because of federal financial assistance. The decision was that federal financial aid in the form of federal grants and loans for tuition did not expose the whole university to those obligations.
MJC: So, there was the beginning of the courts kind of turning back.
MK: Yes, there was a Supreme Court decision and that caused a delay in the enforcement of Title IX at higher education levels, except when there were state laws requiring equity on the basis of gender. Eventually after three or four years, the statute was amended for Title 6 and Title IX, so that if the school received federal financial aid for scholarships and grants, that would cover your whole university.
MJC: So that was fixed legislatively through the Congress as I recall.
MK: Yes, but I left before the fix was completed and so the first turnaround I did work on that legislation. I discovered that that was not my forte, I did not enjoy the lobbying experience. After that, I left the Center and I got certified to teach elementary school and I taught in D.C. public schools for a year. During the course of the transition I had been a tutor in D.C. public schools, and I had taken a number of my tutees through the special ed process to get special ed services.
After I completed a year of teaching, which was very challenging, I then focused on being a special ed lawyer and doing disability law, first in a small firm and then I went out on my own. I was a law partner for Laura Einstein for about 10 years and then I was back on a solo basis. During that time, I used the experiences that I had being in a public interest law firm environment to try to bring about some systemic changes in how D.C. Public Schools functioned vis-à-vis their student population with disabilities, because the special ed system was very broken and did not serve children well.
MJC: Can you remind us when ADA was passed or when were they governed by federal law? Or was a law changing too?
MK: In 1975, the IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it was then called the Education of the Handicapped Children Act, EHCA. It became IDEA over the years. There were federal funds and there was an expectation that not all school systems would take these moneys because of the requirements that came with the funding. There were protections under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for persons with disabilities in federally funded schools.
Of course, all the big city schools had lots of federal financial assistance, so you had coverage under Section 504, but the IDEA coverage was better. Your rights under the IDEA in many regards are greater. Every state did sign up and the territories and so forth, and it’s considered an underfunded mandate, because only 40-60% of the expenses are paid by the federal government at this point. Local state centers and communities have to pay the rest, but it’s enough money to make it attractive enough.
MJC: So that was a cutting-edge area of the law too.
MK: Oh yes. I was counsel on one class action that I brought with one of the clinics at GW for students who were physically disabled and used wheelchairs or had mobility impairments. I had three clients in that boat, who were cognitively fine, but they could not use stairs under any circumstances. One had no legs, another had osteogenesis imperfecta which means her bones broke. If she hit her elbow on the wood table, her elbow would break, very brittle bones, and another had a severe impact from cerebral palsy. They were in general education schools, which was becoming the trend.
But in the District, all school buildings are pretty old, and they don’t have elevators – well at least regular elevators. They may have a freight elevator, but for exiting at the time of a fire, how are you getting them out, because they’re up on the second or third floor of the building and they use the elevator to get up there, but you’re not allowed to use the elevator when there’s a fire. The case was under 504 and the ADA. That was settled quickly.
I’ve been involved in another class action to get the District of Columbia to create an effective child program for 3-5-year-olds. The IDEA has a provision for children from age 0-22 and the 0-3 population is often served through an agency that’s not the education agency. It may be the health department, could be social service, could be any number of options. In the District 0-3-year-olds were not served by the public schools, but the 3-5-year-olds were covered by public school.
It was exceedingly difficult for parents of children who were three, who had had services under Part C (the 0-3) to get their kids into school so that there’d be no interruption in services, which was the goal of the statute and the requirement of the statute by the time they were three. I had many of those clients, with all different kinds of disabilities.
I teamed up with a public interest law firm, Terris, Pravlik & Millian and one of the law clinics at GW. We filed an action in 2005, a class action to force the district to get into the mainstream in terms of looking for these children, evaluating them, and if they’re eligible, offering them the services that they’re entitled to in a timely fashion. That case is still going, I’m afraid to say. We’ve survived two trials and three appeals, but we now have an injunction and we’re monitoring the district’s efforts to bring itself into compliance.
I’ve gone on marches; I support financially and through marching and other activities women’s organizations and the causes that they’re working on.
MJC: What of that period of time of involvement in the women’s movement what would you say were the disappointments?
MK: I guess the disappointments were how long it took to get change. It just took forever, and these cases went on forever; it was so slow. I found that frustrating and that’s one of the reasons why I turned to education, because in special ed, cases for individual children are usually much shorter. They’re resolved in a year or year and a half, not 14 years, not 8 years. So that was disappointing, but the positive thing was that if you look at Title IX, look at the effects of Title IX on the whole society, it’s been dramatic and major, and I feel very good about having been a part of that effort. It’s paid off in so many ways for so many women. It’s sort of assumed that girls will play soccer now.
MJC: So, is there anything else you would like to talk about?
MK: I made a lot of good friends, friends that I have to this day. I’m glad I was a participant and I’m glad that I was able to play a role in making some changes and that’s very satisfying.