THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Nancy Duff Campbell
“I am extremely honored to have participated in three of the most important social and legal movements of our time – civil rights, poverty rights, and women’s rights.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, June 2019
MJC: Good afternoon. Good to see you.
NDC: It’s good to see you.
MJC: Thank you so much for participating in the Veteran Feminist Project.
NDC: It’s a wonderful project.
MJC: Let’s start today by talking about your early days before the women’s movement. When and where were you born? What kind of ethnic background and folks that you had in your life at that time?
NDC: I was born on April 17th, 1943 in Indianapolis, Indiana, in a conservative community, but with very progressive parents, and I learned pretty young in life that we were outsiders in certain ways. I was a Unitarian and most people had never heard of that religion. For example, I was involved in things like standing outside the classroom during the school prayer because my parents didn’t think that we should have prayer in school.
I had a pretty strong background in civil liberties and civil rights issues. I grew up in the 1950s during the McCarthy era and my parents talked about that a lot. I came to a lot of these issues from that background.
MJC: How did that reinforce the woman you became?
NDC: I think the strongest influences in my life in terms of people were my parents and the values that they instilled in me and the issues that we discussed at the dinner table. It was a pretty early time, before a lot of these issues were a part of the public debate. I think that was very influential. My parents thought that it would be good for me to leave Indiana to go to college to see some other part of the country where people were more progressive and saw the world differently than most of the people that I grew up with. In my high school, when Kennedy was elected President, the next day a lot of kids wore black armbands in protest. And it wasn’t because he was a Democrat, but because he was a Catholic.
MJC: So do you have siblings?
NDC: Yes, I do. I’m the oldest, my brother is two years younger and my sister is five years younger.
MJC: So when it came time for college, where did you head off?
NDC: I headed off to Barnard College of Columbia University. I was very interested in being in a big city. I liked the idea of a women’s college, but one where there were also men.
MJC: So New York, you picked the biggest city. So what activities were there that related to your later activism?
NDC: I got involved in the civil rights movement during college. I went to Selma [Alabama] in 1965 and I worked on civil rights issues in New York and also on some civil liberties issues.
MJC: Excellent. So you have good training on the other movements as well. When did you become conscious of your own feminism or feminism in general?
NDC: Well it’s a little hard to say. When I started at Barnard, the president at the time, Millicent McIntosh, gave a speech to the freshmen. The theme of the speech was that you should use your education in some way. It wasn’t necessary that you go to work in the paid labor force, but you should be sure to use that education in some way; that there was real value in educating women and we had a responsibility to use that education.
Plus, I had this background from my own family. I had decided at age twelve that I wanted to be a lawyer and my parents were very supportive of that idea. Whether they thought I would ever really do it or not, I don’t know, but they thought that it was important for girls and boys to be educated and have the same opportunities. So that was reinforced at Barnard, because I was in a place where women had leadership positions and were doing things.
MJC: Why did the law appeal to you at age twelve?
NDC: Well, really because of civil liberties and civil rights issues. I saw the work lawyers were doing at the NAACP and the ACLU in particular. The ACLU had been instrumental in some cases in Indiana. The ACLU hadn’t been allowed to meet in the World War Memorial [in Indianapolis], even though it was a public building. That was a controversy that I was aware of and I saw how lawyers were able to do something about these issues. I had an exaggerated view of what law could do, but it seemed like a way to further what I was interested in at the time.
MJC: So when you completed your education at Barnard did you go immediately to law school?
NDC: Yes I did. I went to NYU [New York University], staying in New York. I chose NYU mainly because I had an adviser at Barnard who had been a judge. She told me that for the things that I was interested in, civil liberties and civil rights, and beginning to be anti-war activities related to the Vietnam War, that NYU was a law school that had a lot of courses in these areas. This was before clinical legal education, so going to a place where they had courses that addressed these issues was important. She said I shouldn’t go to Columbia, even though that would have been a natural choice, because it was still very oriented to business law, and that I should go to NYU because a lot of exciting things were happening there. And she was right.
MJC: What was law school like in terms of treatment of women and advancing your goals?
NDC: Well, interestingly, when I entered NYU in 1965, there weren’t a lot of women going to law school, but my class was 10% women, which was considered very large for a law school class. As a result, I didn’t experience some of the indignities that other women of my generation experienced in law school. We didn’t have professors who would solely call on the women for rape cases, which was common in some law schools. Or who would have “ladies day” in a class, where they would only call on women. I’m not saying there weren’t any professors there who did that; there may have been, but I didn’t have them and I didn’t have a feeling that women weren’t welcome. Certainly there were women involved in a lot of the activities that I was involved in, civil rights and civil liberties and anti-war activities.
MJC: Were there any women professors at that time?
NDC: There were a couple. Mostly they were adjunct professors who weren’t there full time, but there were some.
MJC: So you finished law school and you were still involved in the movement, increasingly involved in the anti-war movement?
NDC: Yes. The first summer after law school I worked for the CORE – Congress of Racial Equality – Legal Defense Fund on civil rights issues. The second year I worked at a small private law firm that was doing landlord-tenant work, only on behalf of tenants, and mainly representing tenants who were organizing in housing projects in New York. I took courses in related issues and during my third year in law school I worked in a legal services program. I began to put together my interests in poverty law, civil rights, and civil liberties law.
I got a job right out of law school at the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law, now called the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. It was a support center for legal services programs. The Neighborhood Legal Services Program had just started in 1965 or 1966, when it was established by OEO, the Office of Economic Opportunity. There were several support centers for the Neighborhood Legal Services offices that were all over the country. The support centers were law reform units working in particular areas of the law. I was working in the one on public benefits law. We did test case litigation, we helped local legal services programs bring cases that involved anti-poverty, public benefits issues. The various support centers were established around the country at law schools and were research and law reform units. The Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law, was at Columbia.
MJC: This is the Johnson administration?
NDC: This was in the Nixon administration by the time I got there. It started during the Johnson administration as part of the war on poverty. But I graduated law school in 1968, so by then it was the Nixon era. One of the things that I’m most proud of was the work that I did there. It was a very exciting time, because everyone who was in my office was probably between 25 and 30 years old. My boss was only a few years older than I was; he had clerked for Justice White on the Supreme Court, so he brought a lot of smarts to the issues. We got to work at a very young age on very important cases.
The year I graduated from law school the Supreme Court decided King vs. Smith, which is a well-known public benefits case invalidating the so-called “man in the house rule”. That was a rule some states tried to impose on women who were applying for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits. AFDC was the welfare program that preceded the current TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] program. Under the AFDC program, in order to be eligible to get assistance, a family had to have a child who was deprived of parental support. A parent could be dead, disabled, or just gone, and if the family had low income, it could receive benefits.
But some states thought that if the mother was seeing a man, or a man was living in the house, or he just visited the house, that meant the child wasn’t deprived of parental support even though that man had no obligation to support the child and had no relation to the child. King was my Center’s case challenging this rule, and we won in the lower courts on constitutional grounds. When the case got to the Supreme Court, we won it on statutory grounds that actually may have in the end made the case much more important to the development of the law.
The Court said that federal law set the eligibility requirements and that states couldn’t add to those requirements. Since federal law required that the child be deprived of parental support but didn’t say that a mother couldn’t have a relationship with a man who was not the parent, the state could not deny benefits to that family. I was involved in developing a whole body of law that we called the King v. Smith progeny – bringing cases that used the theory the Supreme Court enunciated in King to strike down a lot of restrictive state eligibility rules in the AFDC program.
For example, states tried to say that a child had to have a certain level of grades in school or that a woman who wanted to get benefits had to sue the father of her child for child support even if she was a domestic violence victim and did not want to have anything to do with him. There were all kinds of restrictive rules that states tried to impose. And we were able to strike these down and really develop a whole body of anti-poverty law. At the same time, the second wave of the women’s movement was just beginning. I began to think about and talk with my colleagues about a lot of these rules and why they were rules in the first place. Would they have been rules if this had been a program that had primarily benefited men? Would states have a “woman-in-the-house” rule that would keep men from getting benefits because a man had some kind of a relationship with a woman? So I began to think about these things as women’s issues as much as they were public benefits issues.
MJC: So the way you came into the women’s movement was through the law, not so much from a personal experience of being discriminated against but from seeing how the law was applied in a discriminatory way?
NDC: Yes. And part of what we were doing at the Center was supporting the fledgling welfare rights movement that was developing at this time. There were very strong women involved in that movement. It was led by women who were fighting for their rights, organizing for their rights, and were role models for me in terms of what women could do. Even the poorest women who had little time to fight for their rights were out there trying to make a difference, not just for themselves but for other women as well. I was in New York in 1969 for the big women’s march down Fifth Avenue, which I participated in. There were a lot of things swirling around and the personal, political and legal were all coming together.
MJC: How did you build on that for the next phase?
NDC: I stayed at the Center for six years and was mainly litigating, but also involved in public policy work on welfare rights issues. One of Nixon’s presidential acts was to advance a welfare reform plan, known as the Family Assistance Plan. The National Welfare Rights Organization that I was working with was very opposed to this plan, because of changes it would make that would take away some of the benefits that they had secured and not give in exchange a sufficient amount of income on which to live. I was traveling back and forth to Washington at the time to work on that legislation in Congress.
In 1974 I decided to switch gears, and I moved to Washington, because I was interested in law teaching. I had done some teaching of classes while I was at the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law. The women law students at Columbia tried to organize a women-and-the-law class. This was in the early ‘70s and the school said it wouldn’t give them a class, but if they wanted to organize a seminar for students, not for credit, they could have a room at the school. The students asked me if I would be willing to teach the public benefits section of this class.
I team-taught that a couple of times with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was just starting to develop a lot of the law on gender discrimination in Social Security benefits in cases that were on the way to the Supreme Court or in the Supreme Court. I enjoyed the teaching and applied and got a law teaching job at Catholic University in D.C. I was there for a couple of years and then at Georgetown for a year. I taught public benefits law as well as more traditional courses like administrative law. But after about four years I missed the fray.
By then I was at Georgetown as a visiting professor. I had left Catholic for various reasons, and I couldn’t stay at Georgetown because I had been replacing professors who had been on leave but were coming back. I had been doing some volunteer work with Marcia Greenberger and Margy Kohn at the Center for Law and Social Policy, one of the first public interest law firms in the country. They had just begun work in the Women’s Rights Project there in 1972. There were three lawyers in the project; the third was Lois Schiffer, who had just left to go into the Carter administration, so they were interested in having someone else come to be the third lawyer.
I got the job. Part of my goal there, and I think a reason they were interested in me as well, was to build on the anti-poverty work that they had started. In the early years particularly, the Women’s Rights Project had been focused – as the women’s movement was in general – on education and employment issues and health issues, including reproductive rights. I wanted to use my public benefits background to develop a poverty-related practice on public benefits as a women’s rights issue.
MJC: So that’s how you got involved with those women. Tell us more about that [your career] and just continue to tell your story.
NDC: I had been very lucky in my early career to have entered into legal services work, particularly law reform legal services, at a time when there wasn’t an established body of law. We were developing the law. It was a very heady moment for 25-, 26-year old individuals to be having that much influence so early on.
MJC: Did you feel like you were lucky to be born in that era?
NDC: I absolutely did. And I still do. I used to joke with friends in college that I wished I had lived in the ‘30s when Roosevelt was doing so much and the country was changing so much. But looking back now, I’m definitely glad I came of age in the era I did. So, the Center for Law and Social Policy started in 1969 and started to work on women’s rights in 1972 when Marcia Greenberger was hired to be the first person working full time in Washington D.C., on women’s rights issues.
The origin story is that the very progressive men who started the Center hired Marcia in response to a complaint by the then-administrative assistants at the Center that they wanted the Center to work on women’s rights issues. They also wanted more money and not have to serve coffee. So Marcia came and really had to figure out what to do. The first thing Marcia was asked to do was write a memo on whether there was enough work to keep one lawyer busy working full time on women’s rights issues. She never wrote the memo. She just started working and there was plenty of work.
MJC: What were some of the cutting edge issues at that time?
NDC: The women’s rights project started in 1972 and that was the year that Title IX was passed. So that was one of the first things that made sense to work on. By the time that I got there in 1978 the law was beginning to be established in some areas, including Title IX, and the Center was involved in trying to successfully shape the regulations that were going to be the underpinnings for what Title IX meant. There had been a very large fight about athletics, what the coverage would be of athletics. That may be one of the reasons that even today a lot of people think Title IX only has to do with athletics. It more broadly bans discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs, whether they’re in schools or anywhere else.
In the early 1970s there was litigation to get the Nixon administration to process complaints that individuals were starting to file against institutions that were discriminating in education. There was a backlog of complaints and the Administration was dragging its feet in addressing them. A lawsuit had been filed challenging the lack of enforcement and processing of racial discrimination complaints. Part of the Administration’s response to that was to start processing these complaints but stop processing the sex discrimination complaints. So we intervened in the case to make sure that these kinds of complaints were processed, too.
Then disability groups intervened to make sure disability complaints were processed, and the case was ultimately settled in the Carter administration. That big piece of litigation had just been settled when I arrived at the Center in 1978, and one of the early issues I worked on was the scope of Title IX’s coverage of athletics. I was involved in the first case to challenge an entire intercollegiate athletic program. It was against Temple University. We challenged not just limitations in the kinds of sports Temple permitted women to play but also sex discrimination in access to the playing fields, locker rooms, scheduling times, uniforms, travel, the meals women’s teams were given when they were traveling – every aspect of the athletic program.
So, that was a big early case that I was involved in. We were also involved in Title VII litigation challenging sex discrimination in employment. This was post Roe, so we were involved in reproductive rights issues that were beginning to percolate around the country. To increase the Center’s work on poverty and public benefits issues, I formed a Women and Poverty coalition of groups that came together to identify these issues and figure out pressure points – the things that the Center could do to make a difference on them with only three lawyers.
MJC: So poverty became a major issue of that project?
NDC: Yes. And one of the things that we addressed was the fact that a lot of attention was at that time being paid to the Social Security program because of concern that the funding for the program was going to run out. Not so different from now in some ways. There was a big effort to make sure that the program was protected and continued. We saw that as an opportunity to get some improvements for the treatment of women under the program, particularly widows. So we formed a specific coalition to work on those issues.
Beyond these coalition efforts, we at the Center understood that it was important to work with the women’s groups that, beginning in the early ‘70s, were forming all over the country. Nationally, a lot of these groups were in Washington, D.C. We thought it was very important that we be a part of their efforts, to work with those groups and be instructed by those groups, to understand the ways in which these groups saw women’s issues. I had come from a background of being involved in the civil rights movement, and in the poverty rights movement with NWRO, so I very much welcomed the idea of working in coalition with other groups to strengthen our collective ability to make a difference.
We were successful in getting improvements for women into what became the Social Security Amendments of 1983. They were the last big amendments to the Social Security program, and they included provisions both to put the program on a sounder financial footing and to improve it for women.
MJC: That’s very broad, the beneficiaries of that change are everybody.
NDC: Yes, but particularly lower-income individuals, because lower-income women – especially widows – were benefiting the least from some of the then-current provisions.
MJC: The Equal Rights Amendment came out of Congress in ‘72 but most of the activity on that was in the states.
NDC: Yes. We supported the Equal Rights Amendment and the activity that was going on in the states. I worked on some of the legal memos that articulated what the Equal Rights Amendment would mean if it were to become the law of the land. To show that it was needed but also that it wasn’t going to wreck the kind of havoc that some people thought it might.
MJC: So you would describe the coalition work on the women’s movement with the various organizations positively? People trying to work together?
NDC: Yes, definitely positive. We were all feeling our way in a sense. This was a little bit like my beginning work in poverty law: most of us were the same age, although there was much more breadth in the women’s movement than there had been in the poverty law movement in terms of age and experience. One of the things we were often asked is why do we need a legal organization or why do we need multiple organizations working on women’s rights? A ridiculous question, because obviously there were many things that had to be remedied. And there was never the ability for only one organization to do it all.
There was also strength in numbers. If you went to a meeting with a cabinet officer and there were five people or 10 people or 20 people representing different organizations but arguing for the same thing, it was much more impressive than if there was only one organization represented. And I think that organizations tried to both complement each other and carve out certain areas that they did more work on so that others could do more work on other areas. But also to come together and support each other on issues, even if the issue wasn’t a primary one for the particular group. It was exciting to be to be in those kinds of group efforts and to have the achievements that we did because a lot of things changed in a very short period of time.
MJC: What would you say about the women leaders in Congress?
NDC: I worked very closely with Bella Abzug when I was working on poverty rights issues, including when I was representing the National Welfare Rights Organization in arguing against the Nixon Family Assistance Plan. I worked with her staff on a wonderful speech she made in Congress about why welfare was a women’s issue and why the Family Assistance Plan wasn’t the right answer to the problems. I also worked with Pat Schroeder, who was forcefully talking up women’s issues a lot. We had a much more bipartisan group of women then who were addressing women’s issues in Congress. Olympia Snowe was one; she was a House member before she was a Senator. There was a women’s caucus forming in Congress that was very helpful both in terms of actually passing legislation but also in talking about women’s issues and meeting with women’s groups to try to ensure collective action.
MJC: When did the National Women’s Law Center get formed?
NDC: When I began work at the Center for Law and Social Policy in 1978 there were five different projects within the Center working on different issues. There was an Employment Project, a Health Project, a Mine Safety Project, an International Project and a Women’s Rights Project, and we were all about the same size. We had two to three lawyers each and we were collectively funded by the Ford Foundation and some of the other big progressive foundations.
Although we worked in different areas, we often worked together. For example, I worked on a Supreme Court case with the Health Project that involved the right to receive Social Security benefits for certain disabled individuals. Because of the burgeoning size of the women’s movement in general, we at the Women’s Rights Project were able to attract more funding than we had expected. We were expanding, we were up to five lawyers and we were not just thinking of ourselves as lawyers in a law practice but as part of a bigger movement. A lot of the work we were doing was on policy issues, with other women’s organizations, not strictly litigation or other legal work, although we were doing that as well.
We began to see that a lot of our work was in coalition with these other groups and that we were getting to be bigger than the other parts of the Center. The Center had a history of spinning off projects when they got to be a certain size. There had been a project that worked on mental health issues that had become the Mental Health Law Project [now the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law]. There had been a project that worked on media issues, which became the Media Access Project. So we had history on our side.
I’d been thinking, well, could we do this? Could Marcia, Margy and I and the then-two much more junior lawyers make a go of it on our own? There was support from the Center for Law and Social Policy’s Board for a possible spin-off. We had support from Brooksley Born, who was the chair of the Women’s Advisory Board for the Women’s Rights Project and on the Center Board. We had support from Arthur Goldberg, who by that time had left the Supreme Court and was on the Center Board.
We also had, from the litigation that I described earlier, which had been brought by Marcia and Margy and Lois before I came to the Center to force the Nixon administration to process and enforce Title IX complaints, about $150,000 in attorneys’ fees. We saw those fees as a potential cushion for our fundraising efforts, to use as needed in tougher times. The Center agreed we could take those fees with us. We became a separate entity, but continued to share space with the Center for several years. We continue to work together, the National Women’s Law Center and the Center for Law and Social Policy, today on many issues. It was scary to think of starting something new and to see if we could make it work. But it was also exciting and it was nice that we had the support both of our funders and of our parent group to be able to do this.
MJC: What year is that?
NDC: 1981. And actually there is an interesting story about how we got our name. We were the Women’s Rights Project of the Center for Law and Social Policy. That was a mouthful, even in those days. There were some other women’s rights projects or women’s law projects – other groups that had similar names. There was, right here in D.C., the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, now the National Partnership for Women and Families. We knew we weren’t going to become a Legal Defense Fund because that name was taken. We cast around for what we should have as our name and somebody suggested Law: Legal Advocates for Women. But we thought that was a little too cutesy.
My husband, who was a public interest lawyer and represented a lot of public interest groups, including us pro bono, in setting up new organizations, said that we needed to have a name that was distinctive, but that if it was too generic we wouldn’t be able to trademark it. So we’d just have to go out and start using it to establish it as ours. We had a meeting with our Board and decided we wanted to have Women and Law as part of the name and to continue to have Center as part of the name, because we had been a part of a center.
It was also a time when a lot of law schools were changing their names to center. Georgetown Law school became Georgetown Law Center. And so it seemed trendy, being a center. We had Women’s Law Center and then Patsy Mink, who had stepped down from being a member of Congress from Hawaii and was on our Board, said you’re going to be a national group. You have to be the National Women’s Law Center.
When we talked to my husband, he said because it was generic we needed to go out and start using the name before anybody else started to use it. The first time that one of us went out to speak somewhere and said, “I’m so and so I’m from the National Women’s Law Center,” the person she was speaking to said, “Oh, I’ve heard of you.” Of course she hadn’t. But that was a good thing about having a generic name. It stuck.
MJC: Your husband agreed that it couldn’t be trademarked?
NDC: We’ve been able to protect the website name and things like that but not the name National Women’s Law Center itself. For a while there was a Southern California Women’s Law Center, a Northwest Women’s Law Center, and a California Women’s Law Center and we kept saying to them, okay, you’ve gone far enough. You can’t go up to National.
MJC: Reagan is elected in ‘80. How does that change the work?
NDC: It changed it a lot because we had been in an affirmative period when the law was expanding. We were making a lot of new law under the employment discrimination laws that had passed in the 1960s, Title IX in 1972, and some of the public benefits programs that had been expanded during the Johnson administration and the Carter administration. And now we were in a defensive posture and we had to think not only about what we were going to do to protect the rights that we had won but also to keep from backsliding on the rights we hadn’t yet won. And we had to think about how to go forward, how to maneuver in a different climate.
One of Reagan’s first acts was to make good his promise of a big tax cut. He got it passed in Congress in his first year as President. One of the things we had been working on, particularly me, was child care issues, especially how they affected poor individuals. We began thinking about how to use the fact that Congress was considering a lot of tax cuts for people that were not at all poor to make headway on some of the programs that benefited women and particularly low-income women.
One of the things that we got in the 1981 tax bill was an expansion of the Dependent Care Tax Credit, which provides assistance to families who incur out-of-pocket childcare expenses in order to go to work. It had had been pretty much a flat credit, but was changed as part of the tax legislation into a credit that had a graduated benefit. Now, the lower your income, the more you got from it. That’s something we were able to do, working not just with Democrats in Congress, but also Republicans, like Senator Packwood, who were women’s rights advocates and who were interested in doing more for women.
MJC: I remember there was a comprehensive child care bill during the Nixon administration?
NDC: Yes. That was really before our era. I mean before the Women’s Rights Project was started. But, yes, in the late 1960s. It was a very significant child care program. If we had that program today, we’d be in so much better shape. It was passed, it was going to provide funding and require standards for child care programs all across the country, and really be a tremendous expansion of assistance. But Nixon vetoed it, saying that it was basically communism to have the government be supporting child care. We really weren’t able to come back, to pass another big federal child care program until the first Bush administration, when we passed the first comprehensive federal program for child care since World War II (the Child Care and Development Block Grant).
MJC: Talk about what you think are the highlights, the victories, and defeats in that period of 30 years.
NDC: When I started at the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law, we were making a lot of progress on public benefits issues, really opening up eligibility for these benefits to many individuals, who were overwhelmingly women and children. We were also establishing the parameters of the programs and helping women in very grassroots groups to organize around these issues. Before that, between college and law school, I spent the summer in Mississippi working on civil rights issues.
I always felt that the grass roots efforts that I was involved in then were very important to my thinking about what I was to do later and influenced my belief that it was important to talk to the people who were affected by an issue in order to shape what I did on the issue. Of course, as a woman, I have my own ideas about what women need and how to benefit from women’s rights work. But the effect on a lot of different women with a lot of different backgrounds and circumstances needs to be discussed as part of any strategy.
The burgeoning protest movements that happened in the 1960s and the development of public interest law that went along with that, for me in civil rights and in poverty and then in women’s rights, were all overlapping and benefited from each other. The tactics, the strategies, the legal theories. A lot of the law that was made initially in all these movements was constitutional law, because there weren’t statutes to rely on. Then statutes began to be passed and regulations to implement the statues followed. It was important to make sure there was a good statute and to make sure the regulations were effective, and to have more handles that you could use to make progress.
We really did develop the law, I’m saying we collectively, our generation, not just me and not just the National Women’s Law Center, on Title IX, on employment discrimination, on many of the public benefits programs and on child care, on tax policy. By 1986, when there was another big tax reform effort, we formed Women and Taxes Coalition. We got many improvements for women, particularly low-income women in that bill. We used a different kind of strategy than we would have used in the early ‘70s, but similar to the earlier Reagan effort, again taking advantage of something that was happening in a Republican administration that might not happen in the same way in a Democratic administration.
MJC: So you have to change your approaches and increase your skills to do it in a more bipartisan way?
NDC: Yes. When I was in law school there were far more required courses than there are now. I was required to take tax law and I hated it. Yet later I became a tax lawyer.
MJC: Can you talk about your major accomplishments and maybe some disappointments?
NDC: I mentioned the case law and the statutes and policies that we were able to get in place to improve welfare entitlements, the successes in employment discrimination and Title IX law, the passage of the early ‘90s child care bill and expansion of that over the years. There was also success in securing the child support enforcement program in the mid-1970s and its expansion several times since then. So there were many advances at different times because, in part, of different administrations and different levels of interest in these issues. We were always having to change tactics.
One of the things that’s been the most frightening has been the assault on reproductive rights since Roe – working to keep Casey and Roe alive and fighting the backsliding that we’re seeing in the states. Still fighting for things that we’ve had to fight for all along. Again and again and again. That’s an important history lesson for all of us: we fight these battles once and then we have to fight them again. One of the things I think I’m most proud of is the role I had in forming and nurturing the National Women’s Law Center – which did make it past 1981.
Today, as we talk in 2019, it is a thriving organization of nearly 100 people, grown from a small group of five lawyers and two support staff when we started. It addresses a very broad range of issues as the need arises. One of the things we know as advocates is that we never really have enough resources. We never really have enough people to work on these issues. So there’s constantly a need to think about what can I not work on right now because I need to work on something else? So when, for example, there’s a Supreme Court nominee, you have to work on the Supreme Court.
There are things that happen, that you don’t know when they’re going to happen, that you have to be ready to work on. And one of the strengths of the National Women’s Law Center is that it has from the beginning been a multi-purpose, multi-issue organization. And so it’s had a lot of flexibility to be able to move from one issue to another issue. There was a time in the Center’s history, some strategic planning meeting when the mantra was “you have to go deep; you have to focus on things, you have to cut out issues,” and we were struggling with what we should do.
Our Board said, no that’s not us. Our strength is that we are a multi-issue organization. We may not work on all the issues at one time, we may not get funding for all of them at one time, but the fact that we can shift gears is our strength and we should try to build on that. I think that was right.
MJC: That’s an excellent point. How did being involved in the women’s movement affect you personally?
NDC: Well it’s pretty much been my career. When I started at the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law in 1968 I was working on and thinking about women’s issues as part of my public benefits work. But certainly since 1978, when I starting working at what became the National Women’s Law Center, it’s been my lifeblood. I’ve been very fortunate to have a supportive husband and a very supportive family, starting with my parents and as a young person. To have the resources I needed, for child care and other supports, and to try to model in my family and in my private life the things that I cared about in my professional life. It’s not easy.
A lot of young people say to me “How do you find a job or career that’s going to be what you really want to do?” And that’s hard. That’s partly luck. I’ve been very lucky in that way and I was lucky in having support from my family to be able to do it and hopefully to make a difference.
MJC: Is there other activism you’re doing since you’re retired?
NDC: Yes. I stepped down as the Co-President of the National Women’s Law Center in June of 2017 and I’ve been doing some volunteer work with the Center since then, but I’m basically retired. My family and I have a house in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, where we always love to spend time. And I’m very interested in Adirondack environmental issues. I have a project that I’m just getting started on right now which is to try to get either a mountain or something in my area of the Adirondacks named for Inez Milholland. She was an early suffragist I’ve always been a fan of, in part because she was a lawyer. She went to my law school, NYU, at a time when women couldn’t go to a lot of other law schools, in the early part of the 20th century.
She was an activist not just for women’s rights but also for labor rights, and, we didn’t call it reproductive rights, but for family planning, and for civil rights at a time when there were activists working on these issues that we’re not that familiar with today. She had a family home in the part of the Adirondacks where our family cabin is and is buried there. She died campaigning for suffrage at a very early age – 30. She was well known in her time, in part because she was the woman riding the white horse at the head of the suffrage demonstration when Wilson was inaugurated President, which was the first major demonstration in Washington D.C. on any issue.
MJC: There’s a film about her.
NDC: Yes, a documentary about her. There’s been some other recognition of her, but it’s a complicated process to get a mountain named. So I may have to end up with a road or something else, but I’ve got a friend working with me, and we’ve done a little of the legal research on what it takes. When I travel to the Adirondacks this summer I’m going to meet with some historians and some local politicians and others to see what they think.
This is something that has to be organized, obviously, at the grass roots level. I can bring some legal smarts to it but the people there have to decide whether this is something that makes sense. My original goal for this was to get it done by 2020, the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage. I’m a little behind for personal reasons but I’m still hoping that I can at least get interest in it this year and next year.
MJC: Take advantage of the celebration.
NDC: So that’s a little women’s rights activist project that I have going on. Tune in in a few years and see if it comes to fruition. [Editor’s note: Campbell succeeded in getting an Adirondack mountain named for Inez Milholland in December, 2019.]
MJC: So are there any other areas that you want to talk about that we haven’t covered?
NDC: One of the things that is particularly valuable to me is the relationships I have had and have with the people I worked with over the years in every job I’ve had. Particularly at the National Women’s Law Center, because so much of my career was there, starting with Marcia Greenberger, my Co-President. The person who is my comrade in arms, starting when we made the decision to make the Center an independent entity, and our families became close, too. I became close with her personally, and still am, over the years and that’s such a unique benefit.
It’s true of so many people at the Center. I value my friendship, too, with Fatima Goss Graves, the current President and CEO of the Center. I couldn’t be more pleased with her selection and the job that she’s doing. I’m a veteran feminist and there are plenty more to come, and a lot of them are at the National Women’s Law Center.
MJC: How did you decide to be co-presidents? That was quite unique.
NDC: When we first started in 1981, we knew that we were going to have to take on some administrative tasks that we hadn’t had when we were just lawyers at the Center for Law and Social Policy, as part of the Women’s Rights Project. I had actually been a Co-Director of the Center for Law and Social Policy because it had a rotating executive directorship at that time. I knew a little bit about what the administrative duties were going to be.
We were going have to get a tax exemption. We were going to have to have personnel policies, all kinds of things that go into running an organization, and we weren’t going to have that many resources with which to do it. Our first love for all of us was the substantive programmatic work. The new administrative work wasn’t what we had bargained for. We used to joke that we became public interest lawyers so we wouldn’t have to charge clients. Of course, then we had to fund raise, so I don’t know what we got away with. At the beginning we thought we would continue rotating the organizational head, but it turned out that we didn’t like that much either because the division between program and administration was too much.
When Margy left early on, Marcia and I were the two senior people and we decided that we should just run the Center together. We actually talked to a consultant who said, if you think you can make this work, you can do it; just don’t think about old paradigms, think about the paradigm you want. And that’s what we did. It meant that we split the administrative tasks and, because we were getting bigger, began to split more of the programmatic tasks. Before I came to the Women’s Rights Project, Marcia was working in health and employment and education.
When I came, there were so few of us that we all worked on everything, but as we got bigger, and I had brought a lot of poverty work, we split up more of the programmatic work. She took the primary responsibility for education and health. I took it for the public benefit programs, and we shared employment. We worked it out as we went along and added issues, so it meant that neither of us were overly burdened with administrative tasks.
So the co-presidency had some efficiencies, but it also had some inefficiencies. We tried to work those out and, amazingly, we never had any disputes that weren’t easy to work out, on policy or anything else. I think that sharing the leadership also contributed to the growth of the Center and to its ability to work in many different program areas. We had two people at the top directing the work who could do more than one person who had to make choices about what the work would be more than we had to do.
MJC: Well that’s wonderful and you stayed friends.
NDC: Yes. I’m seeing her in two days.
MJC: Any other thoughts?
NDC: I emphasized maybe too much that we were thrown into this work with peers, with people who were not that much older than we were. That’s not entirely true. There were obviously people who came before us who paved the way for us. Not so much in poverty rights, because that was so new. But certainly in the women’s rights movement and in the civil rights movement. We tried to learn at their knees as much as we could and take advantage of their expertise and efforts.
MJC: The ‘60s were a unique period for movements across the board. And I think I’m still discovering what some of the women did. I always thought of the women’s movement kind of going out of business between suffrage and us and that was so not true. We’re trying to reconstruct that history to an end. The Veteran Feminist project does, featuring mostly oral histories with currently alive people, but we’re also honoring some of the people that have passed.