THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I started out being somewhat shy, especially compared with other activists I know.”
Interviewed by VFA member Suzanne Tuckey, April 2022
ST: Hi, I’m here today with Julie Lowenberg. She’s here to tell her story as part of the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer Histories Project. Thank you so much for being here, Julie.
JL: Thank you for inviting me. I appreciate it.
ST: I will let you introduce yourself, actually, if you would. We’re focused primarily on the second-wave women’s movement, so that’s roughly the years 1965 to 1982. If we’d start off, I’d just love to hear a little bit about your story during that time, where you were, what you were doing, all that sort of thing.
JL: I was at Harvard Law School from 1963 until I received my degree in 1966. I guess you could say I was a pioneer in even going to law school at that time, although the way had really been paved, I guess, in the previous decade by trailblazers like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But in my class, as one of 25 females in a class of 500 plus, I experienced and persevered through sex discrimination in many forms.
Looking back now, I think I failed to realize at the time the extent of the discrimination. Some of it was very overt, such as the dearth of women’s restrooms and certain professors calling on women’s students only when [it was] what they called “Ladies Day”. If only they told us when “Ladies Day” was going to be, that might have made it a little better, but not exactly.
Another example would be the Dean inviting all the women classmates to a lovely dinner party at his home, prepared by his wife, of course, at which he asked each of us in turn to tell him and the assembled group, quote, “What motivated you to study law?” Do you think any man was ever asked that? No, I don’t.
Other discrimination was more subtle, such as sometimes not being heard or listened to, even when contributing to a discussion or being passed over for obtaining interviews with representatives from prestigious law firms from around the country that came to the school during the season when they were interviewing prospective associates.
After law school, moving back to Dallas, I encountered discrimination obtaining a job in which I could use my law degree. Example: the then largest firm here offered me a job as their librarian at a salary commensurate with what my husband, who was also a recent law graduate, was offered. But my consciousness, although not totally aroused, was sufficiently aroused that I realized that the offer was demeaning, and I turned that down.
I did find employment with a small firm of six employees. I was the only female and the only non-partner, and not one of the attorneys ever asked me to go to lunch during the nearly two years that I was employed there. Now you could say maybe it’s because they were all partners and I wasn’t. But I think the fact that I was a woman definitely had something to do with it.
After those two years, I was fortunate enough to find part time work at a larger firm when I was expecting my first child and wanted to pull back from full time employment. Possibly because I was not ambitious to make partner, that firm treated me very well for the approximately eight years I was there working part time. But I did witness their discrimination toward other, more ambitious female applicants.
Very unwittingly, I became embroiled in a lawsuit brought against my firm and other firms, too, by some female graduates of SMU Law School who had interviewed at my firm and these other firms and not received offers. This was a really difficult situation for me because I felt great loyalty to the firm that had given me the opportunities I wanted, but also empathy with the highly qualified women who had been turned away.
During this time also, a life changing experience for me was accepting an invitation to teach the first class on Women and Law at SMU Law School. None of the regular faculty members were initially willing to teach it, so they looked to somebody who was not on the faculty. This was in the early 1970s when many groundbreaking cases of sex discrimination were being brought and decided.
I used a textbook authored by then Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was involved in many – she had actually argued many of these cases. But so much was happening in this area that it was necessary to supplement the newly published textbook with court decisions being handed down even as I was teaching the course. The cases I taught were groundbreaking decisions, mostly on employment law and education law.
Roe v. Wade had already been decided and had not yet become a cause célèbre for right-wing extremists. I think of this as a very hopeful and optimistic era. On the other hand, looking back now, and though I was not really directly involved, I think that a serious roadblock during these years was that the Equal Rights Amendment did not get ratified. If that had happened, I think we would be at a very different place today. That’s my early involvement.
ST: I’m intrigued by something you said very early on. You said at Harvard, there was something called “Ladies Day”. What was that?
JL: Oh, just certain professors clearly didn’t want women in the classes. They never called on women in their classes except on one or maybe a couple of designated days each semester. Each of them chose their own days during the semester and that would be when they called on all the women and none of the men.
ST: But no one announced this day. It was just understood by them.
JL: We know it’s coming but we didn’t know when. It was just an interesting form of discrimination.
ST: Fascinating, yes. I know you did a lot since then. But before we go there, I’d love to hear a little bit more about what led you even there. What about your early life that you see as your early influences to be the person you were, the person you were growing to be?
JL: I was brought up in a very liberal leaning family, very progressive politically family. My parents worshiped FDR and they were New Deal people. Actually, just when I was graduating from law school, my father was appointed by President Johnson to be a judge on the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. My father was actually one of the federal judges who declared the right to abortion in the Roe case that was later affirmed by the Supreme Court. So I had a family connection with that particular issue.
Another influence on me during these early years, when I was living back in Dallas and practicing law part time and being a young mother, I joined the League of Women Voters, which was a great learning experience. And the League has had a tremendous influence on me. Through my membership, I learned both from studying and discussing a variety of issues, not just women’s issues, and my life has been enriched by friendships formed with intelligent and activist women members.
I didn’t realize that Dallas actually had so many like-minded women, even though I had grown up here. That was great. They became both my colleagues and my role models. As a role model, I would mention particularly the late Virginia “Ginny” Whitehill, who was a perpetual gadfly and proselytizer for women’s rights. I know she was a big supporter of this Veteran Feminist group, and I remember her very fondly and admiringly.
My family was certainly a big influence in giving me opportunities. I grew up in Dallas, but I went away from Dallas for college and law education, and I met so many different people in those arenas. All of those things influenced me greatly. My husband was in my law class, but he was actually from Brooklyn. He did not want to go back to New York or to live in that part of the country. He was very eager to come to Texas and practice law here. I wasn’t so excited about coming back, but as it turned out, it worked out very well. I like to say that Dallas just isn’t the same city that it was when I was growing up.
ST: Yeah, it’s been an interesting time, but yeah, that would be a great time then to tell more of your story since the years of the second wave, 80s, 90s, and beyond, and how your work continued and deepened and broadened, and then beyond that about how we’ve evolved culturally around women’s rights in those same issues.
JL: Well, looking back now from the current perspective of all that’s happened in, well, I’m talking about the really recent years. I feel that a lot of the progress that we made starting back in the first era is being chipped away and that we are in danger of losing everything that we’ve gained. And I think women’s access to safe, legal abortions is only the most prominent example. Again, the main thing that was left undone despite valiant efforts was a ratification of the ERA.
ST: How you see that things have evolved and then how Texas stands out because you have the perspective of years ago and then how it’s evolved more recently. Do you see that as changing in sync with the rest of the country?
JL: Texas is leading the way in the undoing of all the progress that has made in the last 50 years, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up. I recently saw a sign on a local church. It was a quote from William James that seems very relevant, and it says, “I will act as if what I do will make a difference.” I really think that’s an important thought for people that are in the trenches now trying to work on these issues as things look ever darker.
We must continue to act, even if we don’t believe that our efforts will matter. We of the older generation must continue to be role models for the younger generation and let them know that giving up is simply not acceptable. We were asked by various groups that we belong to call during the confirmation hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown. We were asked to call our Texas senators and tell them to confirm her. Well, we all knew that there wasn’t a chance that our senators were going to vote “Yes,” but I think it’s still important to let them know that we are here and that not everybody is following them or is agreeing with what they’re doing.
ST: Just because people could be listening to this years from now, our two state senators are Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. [They’re] very conservative and leading a lot of the things that are going on these days.
JL: I was actually totally appalled during the hearings for her confirmation. Cruz, in particular – it was bad for future generations. I hope we’ll have better senators in the future. Going back into my own life in the years from 1982, which was kind of the end of that first wave, up to the present. Those are the years that I really personally became an activist for women’s rights, not merely an observer, mostly through my leadership roles in the League of Women Voters of Dallas and of Texas and in the National Council of Jewish Women.
As President of the Dallas League, I represented that organization in the founding and growth of the Greater Dallas Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, consisting of diverse groups fighting back against the backlash among right wing groups and individuals toward Roe v. Wade that has gained increasing momentum over the years. That coalition no longer exists, but I’m proud of the awareness it promoted, and of our advocacy for a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
Then for more than 25 years, I was the Women’s Health Chair for the League of Women Voters of Texas, and I worked to educate our members, the public, and state officials about the necessity for maintaining women’s access to safe, legal abortions. But as the years passed and more and more restrictions were imposed on this right, I could see that it was having less and less meaning. Yeah, we have the right to choose, but there are now all these restrictions. I sometimes felt like the proverbial little boy with his finger in the dike holding back the flood. Now, it just seems like the flood has come.
I have to say, I guess it was about five years ago after one particular Texas legislative session when they hadn’t passed all the bad stuff yet, but they passed enough bad stuff, and I could tell that the next session was going to be more of the same. I just decided, “Well, I’m going to pass this portfolio along to somebody younger,” so I did.
ST: You mean the role with the League? Is that what you meant?
JL: Yes. I haven’t been doing that probably for the past four or five years.
ST: But you did it a long time.
JL: I did a long time, and fortunately, I did identify and recruit my successor, who’s been trying valiantly, although it seems like mostly vainly, to uphold. Well, things are bad.
ST: Like you said, even if it feels like it’s a huge tidal wave coming, to do something, and that a bunch of people doing something can make a difference. Because for many years we’ve had states all over the country pass more and more restrictive laws on abortion rights. Now just recently, like you said, the floodgate seemed to be opening.
JL: Well, with the current makeup of Supreme Court, the pending case actually from Mississippi. Now, everybody just seems to be convinced that it will overturn, that that decision will overturn Roe. I think the abortion providers, they’re trying to get a strategy together for when this is overturned. Well, in Texas, we’ve already begun to deal with it by raising money to help women to get their abortions in neighboring states.
Thinking of the organizations that really exist to fund abortions, there’s one in Dallas called the Texas Equal Access Fund. Then in Austin, there’s one called the Lilith Fund. I think there’s others in the state, but they’ve been around for a number of years raising money specifically to pay for abortions for women who can’t afford to get them. They’ve had to raise even ever more money because now a woman has to travel out of state to get any kind of an abortion after six weeks, at which point a lot of people don’t even know they’re pregnant.
ST: Just to set the context, we recently had the law in Texas, what they call the six-week abortion ban. It bans any abortion after six weeks or after a heartbeat is detected, more accurately. It allows just anyone to be sued, anyone to sue anyone who helps anyone assist anyone getting an abortion.
JL: They’re trying to sue, I think right now, these fund providers. Absolutely. And a few weeks ago in Texas, a woman who had done a self-abortion was actually put in jail. But as it turned out, the law, I think, specifically exempts the woman. It implicates everybody else that aids her, so nothing happened there.
ST: Yeah, she was let out of the prison. No wonder they have this allowing anyone to sue, because that would mean they could go after exactly those kind of organizations you were talking about.
ST: Some of the states are passing laws that prevent anyone from even going to a neighboring state to get an abortion, which is amazing.
JL: There are more progressive states that are passing laws saying that people from out of state, they want them to come there and that the other state can’t sue them. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that as well.
ST: Then you also referenced the Mississippi case, which I’m just setting the context again, so that’s the 15-week abortion ban. The Mississippi case has been around a while. It has been heard at the US Supreme Court, and we’re awaiting the decision by the US Supreme Court. That will be in the matter of a month or two. What are your thoughts about what’s likely to happen there?
JL: I think they’re very likely to overturn Roe altogether, at which point, in Texas, it would become illegal because any kind of abortion would become illegal because there’s a so-called trigger law that would set things back to the way they were before the initial Roe v. Wade Decision.
ST: You’re referring to the law that if the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and allows it to be decided at the state level, there are many states that have laws that automatically go into effect that make it illegal in the state itself. Is that what you mean by the trigger law?
JL: That was one of the bad happenings in one of those recent legislative sessions. They’ve been trying to pass that for years, and they finally did. I don’t know. I guess if Roe is overturned, it would be left to the states. In some states, there still might not be a problem and they might be able to, like I said, encourage people from other states to come there if they can afford to get there to have it.
ST: Do you have any thoughts on what’s likely to happen socially?
JL: Maybe it will be a wake-up call for women who have taken and men, too, who have taken this right for granted. Maybe there’ll be a huge backlash, and it could change the outcome of some elections and eventually the makeup of the federal courts. I don’t know. It’ll be interesting. I do think that a lot of women that are younger well, even people my age, but mostly younger women ever since I can remember, they’ve had this right.
If they suddenly find out that it’s being very restricted, that could be a big wake-up call, I think. As I said earlier, when that case was first decided at the Supreme Court, it was not controversial. But over the next five or 10 years, it became a rallying cry. It was one of the first big issues that the right-wing and religious extremists’ kind of rallied around.
ST: It’s interesting you say that it wasn’t controversial at the time because that reminds me of the ERA, Equal Rights Amendment, proposed 28 amendment to the Constitution, which would protect rights for women. It reminds me of that because that passed House and Senate, overwhelming majorities, both parties. It passed Texas. It was ratified by Texas early on as well.
JL: Texas already had its own Equal Rights Amendment in its own Constitution. It still does for what it’s worth.
ST: Now Texas is leading the way, in many ways, against the right to legal safe abortion. You could easily question whether Texas would ever support the ERA ratification now.
JL: I probably shouldn’t be getting too partisan in this discussion, but Republicans used to support what we call then a woman’s right to choose an abortion. People like the first George Bush. Nixon, I think President Nixon, it was accepted. It was acceptable.
ST: Well, both parties also overwhelmingly supported the violence against women fact, which isn’t true anymore. That’s another one.
ST: When you worked with the League on different things, I think you mentioned domestic violence and things like immigration, multiple issues.
JL: Both the League of Women Voters and National Council of Jewish Women have worked on these issues that are very important, such as women’s issues, but also immigration rights, and the desperate need that we have now for meaningful and humane immigration reform, and of course, more recently, all these threats to voting rights.
There’s a new buzzword, I think it’s intersectionality, and the discrimination—it’s racial; it’s sexual. And of course, Texas: talking about Texas leading the way in a bad way. The recent efforts here to stigmatize the transgender and to actually punish people who would treat them. That is just appalling to me.
But yeah, I think that the thought processes that bring about all of these things, they’re all part of the same worldview of certain people: We don’t like women, we don’t like uppity women, we don’t like minorities, we don’t like immigrants, we don’t like gays and lesbians. We don’t like trans. But they do a lot of this, not all of it, but a lot of it in the name of religion. We’re supposed to be a country where everybody can practice their religion.
ST: Freedom of religion.
JL: Freedom of religion. Right. Hey, I’m not going to make anybody that believes otherwise have an abortion. But in my religion, it’s considered okay to have an abortion.
ST: Well, you were very involved in the National Council of Jewish Women, President of the Dallas, State Public Affairs’ co-Chair, Director on the national board, so you were very involved.
JL: That came a little bit later than the League, but yeah, I’m very involved in that.
ST: Then with the League, President in Dallas and then also the state of Texas.
ST: Working on all these issues, like you said.
JL: Well, those organizations have a lot in common, and one of them is that they’re multi-issue. They study, particularly, the League, but they both speak out on a lot of these issues that I care about that I want others to care about as well.
ST: You taught at SMU. You also taught English as a second language, the teacher?
JL: Yes, to adults. That was more recently. When I got involved in advocacy for immigrant rights, I also volunteered as an ESL teacher at a local agency that teaches adults ESL. I wasn’t very successful teaching the beginners, but the ones that were a little more advanced, that maybe were looking toward becoming citizens or whatever, teaching them the rudiments of civics and about current events. I really did enjoy doing that for a while.
ST: With everything going on, a lot of people say we need to teach more civics.
JL: Yes. How many citizens could actually pass the citizenship test that’s given to people?
ST: The people that earn citizenship are much more educated in all that probably.
ST: Then I also see board of directors on Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.
JL: That’s also immigrant-serving. They provide free legal services to people who are seeking asylum. They vet the people that they accept into their program. If the agency thinks they have a good case that could be winnable, they are accepted into the program. But of course, in recent years, I think when I was on that board, most of the people that they were helping were from Africa and places like that, and the Middle East. But now, of course, they’re helping a lot with the Central Americans, with the influx from there too.
I don’t want to get too partisan. But there’s such a huge backlog now because immigration law is federal law, really. What happened during the previous administration, they did away with certain things that were helpful. Also, the judges are administrative judges. It’s part of the federal government. It’s not part of the actual judicial system.
But I think a lot of them have quit. They’re terribly short of personnel, and it’s really tough right now. I know that the current administration is trying to deal with that. But with all those complications plus the pandemic, there’s just this huge backlog of people waiting to get in.
ST: Well, the immigration issue also, in recent years, has been very much on the news with Texas often leading the way as well. It’s just another way that Texas is standing out. A lot of mixed feelings about who should be able to come into the country and who shouldn’t and all of that.
JL: It was actually when Rick Perry was governor, a good law, from my perspective, was passed that allowed immigrants, not necessarily citizens, but if they were legal residents here, they could get state tuition to attend the public universities in the state. Now that law has been questioned in Texas. I read an article about that recently, so that’s been questioned. It’s like we’re just going backwards, backwards, backwards.
ST: That leads me to ask the question with all that we’ve talked about and how things have evolved and challenges and tensions being stronger than ever, I think would be safe to say. But all that you’ve done in all the different areas that you’ve been working with, what are other thoughts you’d like to share that you’d like younger people to hear, either women who weren’t around during the second wave of the women’s movement or even people that aren’t even around yet, but people years from now that might hear your story and have an interest in this thing? What would you like to share with them? Wisdoms that you’ve learned?
JL: Maybe a theme of my life?
ST: We could do that? Yes, if that captures it. A theme or a simple phrase would capture your message for the world which captures your life.
JL: I would mention there are two important themes. Well, first, I feel I’ve been very blessed to have the support of wonderful family and friends who have encouraged me and supported me and all I’ve undertaken. Also with having had many opportunities to realize my aspirations, I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities. I started out being somewhat shy, especially compared with other activists I know. I initially had a very deep fear of public speaking.
But I think that another quote, this one from Eleanor Roosevelt, describes how I’ve met both the challenges and the many opportunities that have come my way, which is, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
This would apply to my going to and graduating from law school, teaching the course on women in law, accepting leadership roles in community organizations, looking out for reproductive rights, as well as voting rights and immigration. Doing these things that I thought I couldn’t do maybe initially has made me the person that I am. So I think it’s an appropriate theme for my life.