THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Nancy S. Erickson
“I Wanted to Help Change the World for Women.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, March 2020
NE: I’m Nancy Salome Erickson and I was born in Orange, New Jersey on September 26th, 1945.
KR: What was your family background like, including ethnic background?
NE: Protestant, middle-class. My parents’ families mostly had been in the United States for a long time. Some of my mother’s family came from England before the Revolutionary War, and some from Canada and Germany in the 19th century. My father’s family came from Norway and Wales in the mid 1800s.
My parents met in Sault St. Marie, Michigan, when they were in the Army in World War II. My mother, Salome Brennesholtz, had been a champion swimmer for a long time. She grew up in Buffalo and swam in high school there, where she excelled in the breaststroke. I have a lot of medals that she got. She almost made the Olympics. She often talked about a friend of hers who I believe had actually made the Olympics. She went to college in Brooklyn, where I now live – Pratt Institute. She studied art. She had two younger brothers – Aaron and Louis.
After graduation she moved to Dayton, Ohio, to teach art. When the really bad times hit in during the depression, she and all the other women were told they’d be let go because men needed jobs, according to my mother. My Uncle Aaron claims that was not the reason, but that’s what my mother said.
She went back to New Jersey, where my grandparents – her parents – then lived. My grandmother was ill at that time, so my mother took care of her. They traveled a bit around the world very early on – even in planes. It seems to me that it was early to be flying. But my grandfather had made a little money in his job – he was a professional, an engineer – so they were able to take these trips. My mother also was teaching swimming, but that didn’t make too much money.
Then the war came along. She went into the W.A.A.C.s (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) and met my father, George Hugh Erickson, at the border between the United States and Canada. She was interpreting secret codes. We kids asked her about it, but she said she was sworn to secrecy and couldn’t tell anyone anything about it. We never found out what exactly she did. However, I have some of the books and notebooks she used to study codebreaking, and it looks very complicated. She was always good in math and doing puzzles.
My parents then got married. But married women weren’t allowed to be in the military at that time, so she had to leave. She would have had to leave anyway, because the W.A.A.C was being changed to Women’s Army Corps (W.A.C.), so all the women had to reenlist if they were going to continue. She did not reenlist. She lived with her parents in New Jersey while my father stayed in the army.
My brother was born in 1944, and I was born in ‘45. My father came back from the Army and was working as a salesman for a trucking company. Then the Army called him back in 1948 or so and said they wanted him to go to China to help get the Japanese out of Manchuria. My mother wanted to go too, but they wouldn’t let families go. My mother said she told my father if she couldn’t go with him, she wanted to have another baby. My sister Alice was born in 1949.
The irony of sending the army to Manchuria is that the United States Army was trying to help Chiang Kai-shek while Mao was taking over China behind their backs. It is pretty amusing for me to look back on. My mother told me that one day an army officer arrived at the front door and delivered a medal from Chiang Kai-Shek for my father’s service. I have it in her jewelry box.
KR: What was your life like growing up before you got involved in the women’s movement?
NE: It was pretty ordinary. We lived with my mother’s parents in East Orange, N. J. until I was about nine. At that time most moms were stay-at-home moms, which my mother was. I went to school. I loved school, I loved reading. I was a real bookworm. I envied my brother, because he could go to school a year before I could go. I learned to read before I went to school. My mother read to us every night. I drove her crazy, she later said, because I wanted her to read The Little Engine That Could over and over. After my daughter Laura was born, my feminist friend Sara Evans (who wrote Personal Politics) told me that the little engine was female. I had not remembered that.
Both of my parents’ families had had summer cottages on or near lakes where the children could go during summer break from school. My father’s mother still had her cottage in Wisconsin when I was small, and we went to visit her there once. For me, it was a fascinating, old fashioned world – the concept of an outhouse was especially foreign – but interesting – and the whole experience was fun. My parents followed the same path and bought a summer cottage on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. My father commuted to and from work each day while my mother and grandfather stayed with us at the cottage, where we swam and had fun all day.
In grade school and high school, I was always at the top of my class. I loved learning, and I knew I wanted to go to college and do something interesting in my life. My mother had gone to college and had done several interesting things after college, but after she got married she didn’t work outside the home anymore, and I think she missed that. She did a lot with us kids – she taught me to draw, to sew, to knit (which I never could do well!), to crochet, and to garden – all “women’s work,” but it was fun for me to do those things with my mother. She also made sure I got dance and piano lessons and sang in the Junior choir at church, so I have been singing since age 4 every chance I can get. However, she was not a gourmet cook, and none of us ever wanted to learn how to cook, so we were all deficient in that area when we left home, and I still am.
My mother taught all of us how to do puzzles and board games and how to create games for ourselves. She played the piano, and I took piano lessons. My parents had not had a piano when I was born. My mother told me that she decided to get a piano, so she did, and one day when my father got home from work, he was surprised to see a piano in the living room! She also took us to New York City to the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Natural History museum, and to Horn and Hardart for lunch, which was a special treat.
That’s probably part of the reason why I wanted to move to NYC after college, especially since I found living in the suburbs to be very boring. The only things kids in the suburbs could do were afterschool activities, church activities (which I liked – especially choir), bike riding, sports (I liked baseball, but I was not encouraged to play sports like my brother was), skate on “Miller’s pond” in the winter (now prohibited, probably because the town of Mahwah fears lawsuits), and getting into trouble. Plenty of kids got into trouble.
I remember that I had an interesting concept of gender identity when I was 12 years old. When the Soviet Union sent Sputnik into space, an educator or scientist was quoted in the newspapers as saying that girls should not be allowed to study science in graduate programs, because they would just take up a seat that should go to a man – women would just drop out of the profession after they got married and were less talented in science and math anyway. I agreed with that, but I did not think that it applied to me – I was always at the top of my class in science and math. I did not think I should be viewed in the same light as other girls. That would be an insult.
I was a teenager in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and sex discrimination was not viewed as discrimination in the world I inhabited – it was just reality – “the way things were.” A big difference between the way I was brought up and the way I think/hope girls and boys are brought up now is that at that time, girls and boys were almost viewed as different species. Therefore, it would not be possible for a girl to be friends with boys – girls were friends with girls and boys were friends with boys. How could girls and boys be friends, since they liked different things, did different things, etc.? And boys were clearly higher up on the hierarchy. One look at any newspaper confirmed that – all positions of real power were held by men. Now, in the 21st century, we are not very close to equality yet, but things are slowly changing and, I hope, will continue to change.
When I was in high school, one of my best friends (Linda Hurban) and I used to do a lot of walking. We walked in the woods near my house (now an expensive development) and a big field that was said to have been the meeting place for the Leni Lenape Indians at one time (now a shopping center – I was told that “Mahwah” means “meeting place” in the Leni Lenape language).
In high school, I was what we would now probably call a nerd. I was not one of the “popular” students who had parties and dated my classmates. I sometimes felt bad about that, but I also felt that most of my classmates, especially the boys, were immature. I had my eyes on college and thought that I would meet more mature people there. High school was just something to get through. My other close friend was Patricia (Tish) Worrall, who also liked the outdoors and was intellectual. I dated only one guy in high school, and he was one year older – a senior when I was a junior – so after he graduated and went to college, that died out.
In high school, my mother encouraged me to take Latin – she said it was a good basis for whatever I might later study. She was right – it was helpful in law school, because historically Latin was heavily used in English law, and then English law was what took root in most of the United States. I also took four years of German, because I had a fondness for my German heritage and knew that Germany had developed a very sophisticated culture in music and literature. I also took one year of French.
I went to college – first to Hope College in Holland, Michigan, which is run by the church I belonged to. I was thinking of majoring in religion and philosophy. Hope College, like a lot of colleges at that time, treated male and female students very differently. Female students could not live off campus, had to eat in the dorms, and had to be in our rooms with lights out by 10 PM. To circumvent that rule, I studied in my closet, with the door shut, sitting on the floor, with a light that I moved into the closet.
Female students also were governed by a dress code. No slacks allowed. I think I remember another rule – or maybe it was a rule of my dorm mother only – no patent leather shoes because they could reflect our underwear. I hope that was just a myth.
I enjoyed English, German, and history classes, and I sang alto in the large choir. Since Hope was a religious school, there were some religious rules, such as required attendance at morning chapel services and a ban on certain activities – such as card games and dancing – on Sundays.
What bothered me most was the dorm rules, so I applied to live in the German House (for women only) my sophomore year. We were supposed to speak only German, but that rule was rarely followed. We still had to eat in the dorms, but we also had a kitchen where we could prepare food that we wanted.
I roomed with a student who had to get up very early every morning to work (in one of the dorm food halls, I believe). I got tired of being awakened early, so I moved to the basement – bed and all! It was not really a proper place for a bedroom – probably not healthy – but no one told the “authorities.”
One of my extracurricular activities was proofreading for the school newspaper. I hoped I would make some friends through that, but the staff was primarily male, and they pretty much ignored me except for an artist who drew a sketch of me but showed no other interest.
I dated a student from Washington, D.C., who was in my philosophy class and whose mother had escaped from Hungary. I never knew much about their political situation, but Richard grew up knowing some Hungarian. I was considering studying comparative linguistics, so when I found out through Richard that one of the Classics teachers was Hungarian, I was interested in meeting him. He volunteered to teach us Hungarian, and I found it very interesting, especially because it was so different from any other language I had studied.
On November 22, 1963, my philosophy class was interrupted by an announcement that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. The professor cancelled the class. For days, everyone’s faces looked like they were only half alive. Little did we know that many more assassinations of beloved leaders were to come.
Ultimately, I decided to change my major to history and transfer to a school that had a larger history department. I transferred to Vassar, which at that time was all women. I liked Vassar a lot, but it was not at all feminist at that time. In a speech I attended, the president did encourage women to go beyond their traditional roles as homemakers, but he seemed to be referring not to careers in the workplace but charitable endeavors.
While at Vassar, I was considering whether to get a PhD in history or to become a minister. Two things dissuaded me from going to theological seminary. First, my particular Protestant denomination did not ordain women. Second, theology for the ministry was a very strict program. You had to learn not only Hebrew and Greek but also Aramaic, and I thought “I don’t know if I’m up for this.” I had already studied Latin, German, French, and Hungarian, so three more languages seemed a bit much.
Becoming a history professor remained a possibility, however. After I graduated in ’67, I moved to New York City and roomed with a friend of mine near Columbia University. I started working for the Department of Social Services. They needed a lot of workers at that time. I met someone who was also working there, and we got married in ’68. We decided to join the Peace Corps. We got an invitation from the Peace Corps to go to India on the same day he got his draft notice. We knew he could get out of the draft by going into the Peace Corps, so we went into the Peace Corps even though our marriage was a little shaky at that point.
We went to India in a group of volunteers – primarily married couples, with a few single men. I don’t believe that there were any single women in the group. We trained in California to learn the language, Hindi, and then we flew to India. We were based in Rajasthan, which is a desert. Our program was supposed to teach the farmers how to grow vegetables more effectively with less water. They were using a flood method, and we were to teach irrigation methods. Apparently the Peace Corps had done pretty well with their programs in the south for rice and the north for wheat, but that’s not enough for a balanced diet, so they were sending us over to teach how to grow vegetables.
As time went on in that program, more and more of the women were doing different things than the men. Finally, a group of us women went to the Peace Corps leaders and asked why we were not doing the same things as the men. They said they didn’t think that women could do much in India, because it’s a very male oriented society and they don’t really respect women. They said they wanted to send married couples because they had had very bad experiences with single men, such as suicides and accidents and getting involved with local women, which of course was out of the question. Therefore, they thought it’d be better to send married couples, so those kinds of problems would not arise.
Many of us women decided to go back to the United States, because we didn’t like being treated like that. My husband and I went back. He wanted to go to grad school in his home state of Massachusetts, but I wanted to go to grad school too. At that time, it was very hard for spouses to go to grad school and the same time. One was expected to support the other one, and the one who was expected to go to grad school was the husband, of course. We decided to split up. He went back to Massachusetts, and I stayed in New York City.
I was looking for a job, and at every job I went to, I faced discrimination. The one that really stands out was when I went to apply for a job with CARE. It was an ordinary job – an administrative assistant type of job, which was a typical kind of job for women college graduates. The woman who was interviewing me asked why I was interested in CARE in particular. I said maybe I could work my way up into an overseas position, because I’ve been in the Peace Corps in India, and I liked certain parts of it.
She said, “We have never had a woman in an overseas position and we never will.” I thought that was particularly strange considering that Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India at that time. That was the kind of thing I was running into. Additionally, the New York Times and other newspapers had job ads divided by sex: Help Wanted Male or Help Wanted Female.
There was one job, however, where I don’t think being a woman was a handicap – a job as an administrative assistant for the Clergy Consultation Service, which operated out of Judson Memorial Church in the Village. At that time, abortion was totally illegal in some states and legal only for specific, limited reasons in other states. Therefore, many women were unable to get legal abortions. The CCS was set up to refer women for abortion, whether legal or illegal. I was interviewed – I think by Rev. Howard Moody—but didn’t get it.
I finally got a job working for an organization that was related to the church issues that I had been interested in. It was located in a large building some of us called the God Box, which is on Riverside Drive near Columbia. It was close to where I lived.
One day in the spring of 1969, my old roommate Mary Amadjian told me that she had found out about an organization called NOW, which was about women getting together and fighting for equality. That’s when I started getting involved with NOW-NYC, and in 1970 I became the treasurer. As the treasurer, I was on the Executive Committee, and I remember going to meetings at Betty Friedan’s apartment and at Dolores Alexander’s apartment.
One incident that occurred when I was the treasurer sticks out in my mind. As the treasurer, I received and deposited membership checks. I received and deposited a check from Betty. It bounced. I wrote to her and asked for a replacement check. She never sent one. I was not surprised, because she viewed herself as so high above everyone else in the organization that she probably thought ordinary rules didn’t apply to her.
I couldn’t attend the fabulous August 26th march, because my employer wouldn’t let me off for the day, but I was doing a lot of work behind the scenes to get it ready. That’s how I got involved in the women’s movement.
KR: What other things did you do in NOW specifically?
NE: I had been interested in how the law affected women. In fact, by the summer of ’69, I was thinking of thinking of going to law school, because I hadn’t seen many women lawyers. figured that’s what the women’s movement needed. I took a course in Constitutional Law at the New School and realized that nothing in the Constitution had been interpreted by the courts to protect women’s rights, so in NOW, I joined the Legislative and Judicial Committee. Charlene Suneson was either head of the committee or she was very involved.
I was also in the Abortion Committee with Cindy Cisler and Jim Clapp. They started New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal, and I was in that too. I was also in the Education Committee with Kate Millett. I still have a photocopy of Token Learning somewhere. I remember going to Kate and Fumio’s studio one day and being impressed by a bicycle Fumio had sculpted out of wood. Some people speculated that Kate had married Fumio only so that he could get American citizenship, but they seemed truly fond of each other.
I also helped start the Brooklyn NOW chapter. I don’t even remember why in particular – maybe because my friend and fellow NOW member Ann Wallace-DiLeo was living in Brooklyn at that time and we realized there was a need for a Brooklyn chapter.
I started law school in 1970 at Brooklyn Law School and graduated in 1973. While I was in law school, I was still working on women’s issues. My law school application experience was interesting. There were several law schools in New York City, and I applied to some, but I did not give a lot of thought to applying to Columbia. I knew it was a very good school, but at that time it had a quota on women in the law school and also in the architecture school, according to an acquaintance who was in the architecture arena – I think that was Sidney Abbott.
I applied to other law schools and was wait listed at NYU, but I couldn’t afford it – I was not being supported by my parents or anybody else – so I went to Brooklyn, and it was a good school. I got married while in law school, and after that I was being partially supported by my husband, but I needed to pay my tuition and many other expenses. I worked during most of my time there taking notes for a student in my class who was in a wheelchair and couldn’t take notes for himself. I learned a lot about disabilities working for him.
In my second year, I was on the law review. We got on the law review by writing an article or being at the top of the class. I was at the top of my class. I remember being in shock when my Contracts professor told me I got the highest grade in my Contracts class (over 100 students) the first semester. I guess what helped me was that I was really motivated to study. I wanted to help change the world for women, while many people in my law school class just wanted to make a lot of money.
Once on the Review, each new student on the Review had to write a Note on a recent case. We were asked to look and see what good, meaty cases had been coming down from the United States Supreme Court or from other important courts. I chose Phillips v. Martin Marietta, one of the first, if not the first, Supreme Court case involving the ban on sex discrimination in employment, in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The editors said that the case was not important enough. I had to fight to be allowed to do my Note on that case, when in fact it was such an important case. I won the fight, and later I was complimented on my Note.
At that time, women were finally starting to go into law school in some numbers. The previous class had been 4 percent women. My class was 8 percent women. We thought that was a large number, but the school – like society – was still pretty sexist. The school had just moved into a new building and had not anticipated the number of women who would be coming. There weren’t enough women’s bathrooms. They had to solve that problem, which they did. There were no women professors at all. I don’t think there were any women professors until after I graduated.
My group of women students had a lot of feminists in it. We started the first women’s law student organization – Legal Action for Women, or L.A.W. – and it’s still going on as far as I know. When I applied to BLS in 1970, they asked us to send pictures of ourselves either in our college graduation gowns or in “coat and tie.” One of the women in L.A.W. had sent a picture of herself in a coat and tie that she borrowed from her husband.
KR: You’ve used your law degree and your law experience in a ton of ways to help women, do want to talk about some of those?
NE: After law school, I first went to work for a midtown law firm in the Pan Am (now MetLife) Building. My husband was a pediatrician in his residency. We lived in a building for house staff on the upper east side. I started working for a big law firm because I was top of my class and they were starting to take women, so it looked like a good opportunity. It was horrible. The firm’s not in existence anymore so I don’t feel bad saying that – they were pretty sexist.
Ironically, I had decided to go to that firm because they had two women partners, which was unusual, but they were the least feminist women you might ever meet. When I was hired, it was a time where firms allowed their attorneys to do pro bono work, so I asked about that. The person who was doing the interview said “Yes, we encourage it, you can do up to a third of your time as pro bono.” I thought that was really good, so I did do pro bono work when I was there. I worked with two women from Brazil – Rita Moreira and Norma Bahia Pontes — who called themselves “Amazon Media Project” and were doing videos on women’s issues.
Another one was Lady Carpenter, an organization that was trying to get women into the trades they’d been kept out of for years. Also the Women’s Law Center. I had started getting involved with the WLC when I was studying for the bar exam in the spring of ’73. I took the bar review course at night, and during the day I volunteered at the Women’s Law Center. It was set up by a feminist attorney – Emily Jane Goodman – who is now a retired judge.
Women would call in to the WLC with legal issues that they wanted to ask about. I thought I was going to get a lot of calls from women who had employment problems – sex discrimination in employment – but the calls were almost entirely about family law. I realized that what women really needed help with was family law more than anything else. That’s what got me interested in family law. After I took the bar exam and was working at the firm, I didn’t do much family law for that firm because that was not something they did, except for family law for the attorneys at the firm.
One amusing thing that happened was that I asked to have a word processor in my office, but that was denied. I was told that if I had something like that in my office, people would think I was one of the secretaries. I believe all the secretaries were women. I don’t know whether they would have denied a word processor to a male attorney who wanted one.
I didn’t stay there long because of the sexism. My new group of lawyers started in September, and in December they had an end-of-year luncheon. It was scheduled to be held at a club that accepted only men as members – the Century Club. A couple of us new women at the firm didn’t like that idea. For one thing, women couldn’t go in the front door. We would have had to go in a special door for women. Two of us went to talk with the managing partner about that. Reluctantly, he changed it to some other place, but I don’t think he ever forgave us for that.
The firm was not a good match for me, and even though I had already decided it wasn’t a good match, they decided for me that it wasn’t a good match. They told me I had spent too much time doing pro bono work. I said that Mr. X told me that I could do up to a third of my time as pro bono work. Apparently that got back to Mr. X. He must have denied it, because they then suggested that I start looking for another position. I was looking for another job, and I didn’t care that I was asked to leave.
I was very optimistic – I think maybe overly optimistic. I didn’t see the barriers that were in front of most women lawyers, because I’d been editor-in-chief of the law review, so I had advantages that other women law graduates didn’t have.
I got a job teaching at New York Law School, teaching family law, sex discrimination law, and some other courses. I was not working that summer, because I was going to start teaching in the fall of ’75. That was fortunate, because it allowed me to be in North Carolina with my mother for many weeks, and she was sick with an incurable illness, so I was able to be with her at that important time. She died the next February.
I was only the second full-time female faculty member. The other woman was Suzanne Gottlieb, whose husband, Paul Solomon, was also on the faculty. Suzanne and I became close friends and are still friends to this day. Suzanne was a trail maker, having worked as one of the only women assistant district attorneys under D.A. Frank Hogan.
We both were involved in the Section on Women in Legal Education (WLE) of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). I believe that every year beginning in 1976 I went to the annual AALS convention, which was usually held in January. The Section on WLE held a breakfast at the convention each year. The first time that I went, there were so few members that we had no problem being seated at one table.
In 2012, there was a symposium in the Law Review of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law containing reminiscences from many of the early chairs of the Section – RBG and I among them. Marina Angel, who had been the Chair of the Section in 1986, also taped interviews of many of us, which I believe will be archived in the WLE archives at the Schlesinger Library.
I later became the newsletter editor of the Section, and I remained in that position until I left teaching in 1987. It was an exciting time to be a woman law professor, as we watched our numbers and our influence in the field grow. A few years ago, I attended a meeting of the Section, when the AALS annual meeting happened to be in NYC. It was fun seeing some of my old colleagues, such as Pat Cain, who taught tax law and had also been a chair of WLE.
I was at New York Law School from ‘75 to ‘80. One of the earliest students in my Sex Discrimination course was Judy Reichler. She was an older student than most, having come to law school after having children. I am so proud of what she did with her law school education. She became the head of the NYS Child Support Commission, which was in charge of drafting child support guidelines after the federal government mandated that the states enact them. I credit Judy with the fact that we have one of the best set of guidelines in the country. Unfortunately, many attorneys – and even judges and support magistrates – do not use them as well as they could, but the potential is there.
At one point, Cornell Law School asked me to teach a course in Women and the Law. The women students were clamoring for it, and Cornell didn’t have a faculty member to teach it. So for a semester I became a commuter between NYLS in NYC and Cornell in Ithaca. It was a difficult but interesting time. I met Professor Sandra Bem there, and we were able to squeeze in a meal or two together to discuss research on sex role stereotyping, which is one of the foundations for sex discrimination in law and all of society. I was saddened a few years ago to hear that she developed Alzheimer’s. She then did something very brave – she took her own life instead of living as a mere shadow of herself.
In ’79, I applied for early tenure at NYLS. I had gotten involved politically at the school, which was not a good thing to do at that school because the Dean was not exactly on the up and up. The faculty started to suspect something when a report came out giving the average salaries of faculty members and deans at law schools. Our dean was the highest paid dean in New York City area and our faculty was the lowest paid faculty. We started getting suspicious of what might be going on, and a few of us started investigating. We found a lot of stuff that was pretty bad. It looked like the Dean was taking bribes to let students in.
Anybody who was not entirely for him he started trying to get rid of, and that included not only me but two or three other professors. When I went up for early tenure, the faculty voted to give me tenure, but the Dean persuaded the board of trustees not to give me tenure. I had a letter of recommendation from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was then at Columbia, but what did she matter, she was just a woman. One of the board members for whom I had done a lot of favors (I had taken over several of his classes when he was otherwise engaged) said that my writings were written from a “narrow, feminist point of view.” The Dean and the board of trustees denied me the early tenure I had earned.
I took a year off to go to Yale to get a master’s degree in law, where I studied with Goldstein and Solnit while they wrote Before The Best Interests of the Child – their follow-up to Beyond the Best Interests of the Child – and experienced what it was like to be a visitor from another world at a school filled with students and faculty who were primarily from a very privileged world.
A funny thing happened when I was at Yale. I was still doing some work with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, and one of the cases I worked on was Ludtke v. Kuhn. That was a lawsuit by a woman reporter who wanted to get into the men’s locker rooms after the games because that’s where reporters got interesting stories. She was kept out, while male reporters were let in, so the ACLU Women’s Rights Project helped her to sue. I worked on the brief, and we won.
I remember walking through the TV room area at Yale Law School just after the decision came down. The decision was announced on TV, and all these guys were sitting around the TV, and they were saying “Oh, man – that’s terrible!” I just walked on by with a smile on my face.
While at Yale, I looked around for other teaching jobs. One of the women that I had known from the Association of American Law Schools Section on WLE was Rhonda Rivera, who was one of the first lesbian women faculty members at a law school. We got along really well, and she suggested that I come teach at Ohio State for the summer and then if they liked me maybe they would invite me back. So that’s what happened.
I was told later that the Dean of NYLS told others: “How did she get that job at OSU? I phoned every law school to make sure she never got another teaching job.” I taught at New York Law School for one more year and then started teaching at Ohio State in the fall of 1980. I was there till ‘87. My daughter Laura was born in ‘81.
I was very involved with women’s issues at OSU. One of the earliest women’s issues grew out of a situation where a friend of mine on the faculty found out that she was pregnant and wanted to get an abortion. This was Ohio, where there was a lot of anti-abortion sentiment, but on top of that she found out that faculty health insurance didn’t cover abortion. She and I talked, and I investigated it with other people.
We discovered that our policy had covered abortions, but the administration had removed it from coverage a year or so before. The matter was resolved on a procedural basis, because the school was not allowed to make a change like that without going through certain processes, and they had not gone through those processes. We got abortion coverage back.
There were several other women on the faculty at OSU. It was quite different from Brooklyn Law School where I went as a student, where there were no women faculty members during my time there, and at Yale Law School, where I think there were only a small number. Barbara Underwood was teaching at Yale at that time. She’s now the solicitor general of NYS. She’s a wonderful person.
At OSU, I met many strong feminist faculty members and students. There was a Women’s Studies Program, and my colleagues Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor (authors of Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement: 1945 to the 1960s) were very active in the program. Among the students, Catherine Heid is a close friend to this day. She worked for me in many capacities, including work on my house (which I bought from Leila) and doing research for my scholarly work.
Catherine was divorced and had a very young son – Anson – when she started law school. My daughter Laura was born when Anson was only a few years old. Laura’s father and I did not stay together for long after her birth, so I raised her as a single mother. Anson and Laura were often together, because Catherine and I (and another friend with a small son, Jared) often played together as we swapped turns babysitting so that each of us could get a break from single motherhood.
KR: Do you want to talk a little bit about some of the work that you’ve done related to women and family law and domestic abuse? I know you’ve been involved a lot in that issue.
NE: Volunteering at Emily Goodman’s Women’s Law Center was what started it. Then when I was teaching I got more and more interested in family law. I taught it at least once a year.
I didn’t understand domestic abuse until I taught at Ohio State. When we got to the part of the syllabus in Family Law that dealt with domestic violence, I knew I was not prepared to teach it. I was one of those women who could not understand why women stayed in abusive situations. I thought that if I were in that kind of situation, I would leave immediately. I had no idea what DV was all about.
My student assistant, Catherine Heid, was very knowledgeable about the subject, and she suggested that I bring in someone from the local DV program. That was a real education not only for the students, but also for me. After that class, several women came up to me privately and said they were survivors of DV. One woman said that her ex-husband had tried to poison her by putting poison in her coffee.
I later did a project that involved DV, among other topics. The Association of American Law Schools started to get interested in getting sex discrimination issues into all of the different courses. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of the people most involved with this. I decided I would take a look at criminal law because I didn’t know anything about it except what I found out when I went to law school. I never practiced it, never had anything to do with it, never taught it. I thought it would be a good area for me to look at – how criminal law treats women. We knew that the rape laws were terrible. What about other parts of criminal law?
I got a grant from OSU to do a study on Sex Bias in the Teaching of Criminal Law. It turned out to be interesting for many reasons, including the fact that it turned out to be very involved with family law, which I had not expected. For example, many kinds of domestic violence are crimes, but there was nothing in the criminal law case books on domestic violence.
I looked at six or seven of the most often used criminal law case books to see how women and issues that especially pertained to women were treated. How did the authors of the books treat women? What cases did they choose? What did the cases show about the attitudes toward women held by the judges who decided them? How did the authors of the casebooks treat the cases?
I found that there was nothing on domestic violence in the criminal law case books except that there’s a section in every criminal law casebook on self-defense. When I looked at the self-defense sections of the criminal law casebooks, I started to realize that many defendants in the self-defense cases were women. Why was this happening? The only other places that women usually appeared in the criminal case books were as rape victims and defendants in prostitution cases.
It took a bit of digging to discover why the defendants in the self-defense cases were often women. No case book gives you the entire case. They just give you the part of the case that they think is most relevant to the material they’re trying to teach. I went back and read the entirety of each case in the self-defense sections of the books, and that is how I found that many of the women defendants were victims of domestic violence who claimed they were killing in self-defense.
With the help of Catherine and a group of advisors who were primarily law professors, I ended up writing an article that was so lengthy that we couldn’t get any journal to publish it for years. Finally, one of my advisors – Professor Nadine Taub – persuaded Rutgers Law School in Newark to publish it, and it took up practically the whole issue of the journal.
KR: It sounds like it was really groundbreaking.
NE: Yes, and others were being published along those same lines. There were articles on property law and civil procedure, for example – eventually, just about every law school subject. Mostly, women law professors were writing articles on how the casebooks and other materials treated women in that particular field of law. It was a very exciting time. I’m very curious as to what later happened. I know that some casebooks changed a lot, but I don’t know what happened across the board.
The basic impetus for these studies was that most schools by that time in the ’80s were offering courses on women and the law or sex discrimination and the law. By the way, it was not called “gender and the law,” which is what it is sometimes called now, which is a very different course, often including LGBTQ issues. The courses then were on women and the law or sex discrimination and the law, but soon the thought was why should we have women and the law stuck in a separate course when it really pervades the entire legal system. So that was the incentive for having all these studies on different areas of the law and how they treated women.
While I was teaching in the ’70s and early ’80s I started getting more and more interested in women’s legal history. That’s when lots of women were going into teaching history and doing research on women’s history. I was trying to put them together to look at women’s legal history. So was Professor Wendy Williams in DC. She and a colleague, Professor Richard Chused, put together materials on women’s legal history and taught a course in women’s legal history.
I was doing some of the same thing – doing a lot of reading and putting together materials. Unfortunately, I taught the course only once – at NYU in the history department. I started an organization called the Society for the Study of Women in Legal History, which was made up primarily of women’s history historians rather than law professors. We sometimes met at meetings of the Organization of American Historians. I wish I had had time to do more research and writing in that field.
One of my core subjects was Constitutional Law. By the time I started teaching, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others were convincing the Supreme Court that the Equal Protection Clause should be used to negate laws that invidiously discriminated on the basis of sex, just as that clause was used to negate laws that invidiously discriminated on the basis of race.
I asked my students whether the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the sex discrimination cases could be used to successfully argue that the Equal Protection Clause should also apply to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. We had a very spirited discussion in class on that issue. After that class, I found an anonymous note in my law school mailbox from a student who thanked me for arguing that sexual orientation could be a “suspect classification” protected under the Equal Protection Clause. I was glad that students such as that one could feel supported in my classes. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of LGBTQ rights for decades thereafter.
In 1986, I decided I wanted to go back to New York. Up until then, I had been looking for teaching jobs in New York, but after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986, I wasn’t so keen on teaching anymore. I had to teach that case in Constitutional Law. I viewed my job in teaching as helping the students to understand the cases they read, but I couldn’t help them to understand that case, where the Court ruled that consenting adults do not have the right to engage in homosexual acts in private, so they upheld the Georgia law that criminalized homosexual acts.
They said the right to privacy protects intimate marital and familial relations, but they saw “no connection between family, marriage, or procreation on the one hand and homosexual activity on the other.” In light of precedent, I could not explain that to the students. That case was not overruled for almost twenty years.
I also wanted to move because I really wasn’t crazy about Ohio. I wasn’t used to the culture. It was pretty sexist and racist at that time. I’m hoping it’s better now. My daughter Laura was about five, and I didn’t like the idea of her growing up in that kind of environment. We came back to New York for a year off from Ohio State. I was teaching at Seton Hall Law School in Newark, New Jersey, as a distinguished visiting professor. Dean DeFeis made me feel very welcome there.
I decided to stay in New York, but I had to get a different position, because the Seton Hall position was for only one year. I started looking for jobs that were part time, because Laura was only five and I didn’t want to be away from home that much. I found two part time jobs as an attorney, both for government. One was working for Corporation Counsel – the office of the attorneys who represent the City of New York. There are a few hundred attorneys in Corporation Counsel. The other one was the attorney general’s office. I went to the Corporation Counsel’s office and was there for a little more than two years in the Legal Counsel Division, writing opinions and drafting legislation.
While at Corp. Counsel, as it was called, I got involved with the National Center on Women and Family Law, writing books for them as a side job. Ultimately I ended up getting hired by the NCOWFL as a staff attorney. That was a really interesting organization for me to work for. It was a national backup center for legal services attorneys in the areas of women’s issues and family law, like the other backup centers, such as housing law, public benefits law, juvenile law, and employment law.
There were national (and state) backup centers throughout the country on those different areas of law. The legal services attorneys out in the field, if they had a question relative to a case on which they were working, could call and ask where to find some good research on the topic or get some advice on how to handle the case. Staff attorneys at NCOWFL also travelled to give trainings throughout the country. I enjoyed meeting others who were working on family law issues, and I learned a lot more in that time about how family law really operated in practice.
In terms of children, the first thing I worked on was child support. Up until 1975, each state did whatever it wanted on child support in whatever way it wanted. Child support orders were usually inadequate, and there were few enforcement mechanisms. The federal government got very concerned, because there were so many women with children on public assistance (Aid to Families with Dependent Children – AFDC), and many of them were not getting any child support, so it was difficult for them to ever get off of public assistance.
Consequently, the federal government passed a lot of laws regarding getting child support from the non-custodial parent. Each state ultimately was required to have guidelines on how to compute child support. The states were supposed to create their own guidelines, and the guidelines had to come up with a reasonable amount of support from the non-custodial parent. The states were also required to have certain enforcement procedures in effect.
There was a deadline that the Feds put on passing child support guidelines – some time in October 1989, I believe. I think that New York finally passed its child support guidelines on the very last day. I wrote a book for NCOWFL on child support guidelines throughout the country – which ones were similar, which ones were different, how they were devised, and how they operated.
KR: What would you say is your greatest accomplishment or your most memorable experience in your activism life?
NE: There were a lot of memorable experiences. I think one of the most important ones is that there’s a very big divide between academics and practicing attorneys with respect to family law. Flo Kennedy used to say that the ass-by-ass process of getting the rear ends of individual women out of the ringers is very tiring and frustrating. You can get away from that as I did by teaching, but you don’t really learn what’s going on in individual women’s lives on the ground. I’m glad that I went back into the practice of law and was able to represent the individual women and find out what was really happening, while still continuing to research and write.
What was really happening is pretty simple to understand on one level. For example, women often lose custody cases, although the myth is that women always get custody. But it’s simple to understand when you look at who has the money. If the father wants custody, he is likely to get it if he’s the one who’s got the money, which he usually is. On top of that, we started getting hit with the concept of parental alienation syndrome which started in the ’80s with Richard Gardner.
He was a psychiatrist who claimed that women were alienating their children against the fathers and that the courts should take the children away from the mothers and give custody to the fathers to protect the children from being alienated against the fathers. Gardner even said the children should be cut off from all contact with their “alienating parent” for months, if not longer. This has been an incredibly huge problem for women.
I’ve been working on this for years. I wrote an article on it and have been helping with amicus briefs on it. I’ve been lecturing on it. Joan Meier and others have done research on it. It’s a never-ending battle it seems, although there have been some good cases, and it appears that maybe some courts are finally realizing that parental alienation theory is really garbage science. It’s not science at all. It should not be used to harm children who end up going to live with a parent they don’t want to live with and rarely seeing the parent they want to be with.
Another example of finding out what is happening on the ground occurred before I even left academia. I had worked with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project on some cases, but in 1982 the ACLU took on a sex discrimination case with which I could not agree – they represented a biological father who wanted to block the mother from placing his non-marital child for adoption. The father was singularly unsympathetic – Mr. Kirkpatrick was 22 years old when he began a sexual relationship with 14-year-old Ms. S., so the pregnancy was clearly the result of a criminal act – statutory rape.
The mother gave birth in an unmarried mothers’ home in Texas and consented to the baby’s adoption through the Christian Homes of Abiliene. Kirkpatrick petitioned to “legitimate” the child under Texas law, which would have given him the right to block the adoption. But the Texas law permitted legitimation over the mother’s objection only if the court found that legitimation would be in the best interests of the child. The court did not allow the legitimation and permitted placement of the child with a foster family. Kirkpatrick appealed. The appellate court affirmed. The child was placed with an adoptive family.
ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and Children’s Rights Project then decided to represent Kirkpatrick during his appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
On behalf of the National Center on Women and Family Law and the Committee for Mother and Child Rights, I filed an amicus brief on behalf of unwed mothers, because the actual mother of the child was not a party to the case, so without my brief, the views of unwed mothers who wished to place their children for adoption would not have been presented to the Court.
I was severely criticized by some feminists who alleged that the brief was anti-feminist. They argued that if the mother could withhold her consent to an adoption, then exact equality required that the father be able to withhold his consent to the adoption. But in this instance, the mothers were not similarly situated to the fathers. The mothers were the ones who had to decide whether they would have an abortion or continue the pregnancy. They were the ones whose bodies carried the pregnancy for nine months.
They were the ones who would have all the responsibilities of caring for and supporting the children if they were not permitted to place the children for adoption. The fathers, on the other hand, would be responsible only for support (if they could be found and support could be ordered). The Constitution cannot require exact equality when males and females are not similarly situated.
The Supreme Court avoided that issue by remanding the Kirkpatrick case to the Texas courts, but a very similar issue went up to the New York Court of Appeals in 1988 in two cases: Matter of Baby Girl S and Matter of Raquel Marie X. I made similar arguments to the Court of Appeals in an amicus brief for the same amici. Although the Court of Appeals did not cite our brief, our brief appears to have influenced the Court’s decisions in a direction favorable to the mothers.
On June 9, 2008, the Veteran Feminists of America held a Salute to Feminist Lawyers in New York City. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the Special Guest of Honor, and I was among the other honorees. I said then that my work on the Kirkpatrick case and the New York Court of Appeals cases were things I was very proud of, because “I have not hesitated, when I thought something was wrong, to even go against my beloved friends in the women’s movement.”
By 1988, I had left academia, and by 1995, I was leaving the National Center on Women and Family Law. It folded because the federal government stopped funding all the national backup centers. I worked for a law firm and eventually worked for Legal Services in Brooklyn. I started seeing abused women who had lost custody because the courts had ordered a custody evaluation to be done on their cases, and the evaluator recommended custody to the abusive father. Usually they’re done by a psychologist or psychiatrist or social worker, usually psychologists.
The custody evaluators were starting to get imbued with this concept of parental alienation, and many of them were claiming that the mothers were alienating the children – which they weren’t. This was especially a problem in domestic violence cases. As soon as the mother said that she had been abused or that the children had been abused in some way, then the father would jump back, saying “No, she’s lying. And she’s badmouthing me to the kids – she’s alienating me from them. This is parental alienation and I should get custody.”
I was so confused about why the custody evaluators would believe in parental alienation and recommend custody to abusive fathers. I decided maybe there was something wrong with me – maybe I didn’t really understand psychology and what custody evaluators were doing. So I went to John Jay College to get a masters in forensic psychology in order to understand custody evaluations, with all their psychobabble.
Lo and behold, I discovered there was nothing wrong with me – there was something wrong with the custody evaluators, especially the psychologists, who misused psychological “tests” and other evaluation techniques and were untrained in forensics. The social workers were better at doing custody evaluations, but most of the custody evaluators were psychologists, and they had absorbed all the hype about parental alienation and thought that it was the latest and best new science. So, we’ve been fighting that ever since then.
From my experiences representing battered women and hearing their stories, I realized how many of them were suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and other conditions like that because of the domestic violence. Many of them were disabled on account of it. It made it very difficult for them to proceed with their cases. For one thing, they could barely stand to go near anyplace where their abuser was, so that going into court was a nightmare. As soon as they would see him they would have flashbacks and fear related to their PTSD. They couldn’t function in the court.
I started talking with other women who were interested in how to help these women. One of them was Karen Huffer, who just passed away, unfortunately. She started a program to help not only abused women who have to go into court, but anybody with a disability who has to go into court. The courts understand that under the Americans With Disabilities Act they have to accommodate for people with obvious disabilities, such as mobility challenges or deafness. But the courts don’t understand much about invisible disabilities like PTSD.
Now that we’re having a lot of service people with PTSD coming back from our many wars, we can hope that the courts will start to see what they have to do with litigants who have PTSD who need accommodations from the court. That’s been a big push of mine, and several other women lawyers have gotten involved with me on it, and we think that the ADA can be used to help a lot of abused women. It’s so unfair for them to not only be up against the richer person but also to be disadvantaged by their disabilities (often caused by the abuser) so that it’s hard for them to function within the legal system. I am glad that we’re able to help them.
KR: What are your children doing now?
NSE: I am very fortunate to have two wonderful daughters and a wonderful granddaughter. My older daughter, Tania, is a teacher in Alaska, and her daughter, Justine, wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. My younger daughter is a psychiatrist who researches and writes a great deal about LGBTQ issues.
KR: You have done amazing things. I’m incredibly impressed and grateful to you and for what you’ve done and for sharing your story.