THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Mary F. Kelly
“My early involvement in the feminist movement made me a feminist for my entire life.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, January 2023
JW: I am here with Mary Kelly. First question, as you know, is where and when were you born?
MK: I was born in Manhattan, at St. Vincent’s Hospital on November 29, 1943.
JW: Can you tell us a little about your childhood and maybe what influences led you to the career you took?
MK: I don’t know that my childhood was connected to it at all, really. My childhood in the first nine years of my life, I lived in a rural community in Brookfield, Connecticut. Initially we lived on what essentially was a communal farm that my parents and two other sets of parents had decided to establish, so we had chickens, goats and pigs. I was in charge of the chickens.
JW: You did go through Catholic schooling. Right?
MK: I went to Catholic school through twelve years of education.
JW: What motivated you to go to law school?
MK: The timing was based actually on a couple of things. I had worked between graduating from college in 1965 and 1968. I worked for something called Americans for Democratic Action, which basically was a liberal lobbying group operating in New Jersey. When I realized how important legislation was in everyday life and important events in our lives, I suddenly thought, “Well, no, I want to be involved in this. I’m going to go to law school.” And I did.
The timing of my going to law school in 1968, I don’t know if you recall, that year men lost the draft deferment to go to medical school or law school. So, the schools opened up to women. And as an example, NYU’s women population the year before, 1967, was probably about 3%. In 1968, it was 22%. Whatever the men did who were affected by it, it opened opportunities for women and I was one of them.
JW: What was it like being in the first surge of women in law school?
MK: It was absolutely astonishing to me. It was the first time in my life I realized that women could be actually considered second class citizens. That men were the majority. That’s what initially turned on my feminist button. And I was of course, assisted by other women who had gone to law school at the same time. My classmates, several of whom had not come from college, but had worked, some of them in the civil rights movement in the south, came with an attitude that women should be a very strong part of the profession.
We felt in law school that we were not considered equal. It was the spirit that was in the school. It wasn’t necessarily something that was directly aimed at us, that we were inferior, but you could tell that we were in some ways, considered gratuitous. There were professors who had something called Ladies Day, and they would call on women. You knew it wasn’t a privilege.
In my first semester, a group of women and myself looked into something called the Root Tilden Scholarship, which was the most prestigious scholarship at NYU. We were told even by the dean who ran this scholarship, that the grantor had eliminated women. He had made the scholarship available only to men. Well, we then went to the library and looked at the documents that established the trust and the scholarship, and it wasn’t true.
That experience is what radicalized me. There were other events in my Catholic life as well that did so, but this was the most formative one. We went to the dean of the law school about it, and we said, “This is grounds for a lawsuit.” And it changed immediately. The scholarship became available women.
JW: What kind of organizations were there in law school for women? I wonder what was going on at NYU at that time?
MK: Well, there was nothing when I got there, but we established, the same group of stalwart women that I spoke of before, we established the NYU Women’s Law Committee and reached out to other law schools, so that Rutgers, Yale, various other schools established the same thing. A few years into that, I think it was in 1970, we actually had a regional meeting of women’s groups from the various law schools. And we were all facing the same issue. Which is, whether we were really going to be treated with equality in this profession that we had chosen.
We felt that we needed a place, and if we got a place that was fair in the profession, that we would begin to bring changes to the profession. We believed that, and we talked seriously about it. In my third year of law school, when we were interviewing, all our classmates were interviewing for positions post-graduation, we discovered that in the interviews, women were not treated fairly or they were not taken seriously. And that resulted in multiple lawsuits that we brought in the following year against some of those firms.
JW: I also know you were very concerned about the Equal Rights Amendment. Want to tell us about that?
MK: Yes, we were. We were very active in promoting it. And in fact, we got the assistance and help of Gloria Steinem, who agreed to speak at the association of the Bar in the city of New York, perhaps in the year of ’70 or ’71. And she said, “I’m going to be a Trojan horse. I want all of you to come and be in the audience, and you’re going to ask serious questions and point out the importance of the Equal Rights Amendment, because the audience will be largely male and largely lawyers in New York City area, and we want them to be in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment from their committees.”
It was a pretty important meeting, and Gloria really did us a great favor, if you will, and it was publicized. There’s no doubt that all of these events had effects. Perhaps it was ripple effect, but it was real. You can tell they had never been exposed to this kind of discussion before. They’d never heard women talk seriously about the Equal Rights Amendment. Maybe they read about it in the paper, on the subway, but it wasn’t a subject that was right in front of their minds. We brought it to the front, and I think it was an important service.
JW: You did mention about suing some of the law firms for treating potential new lawyers in hiring and discrimination. Can you talk a little more about that?
MK: Yes. It was based on a handful of cases. I think there were seven or eight lawsuits brought. Those lawsuits were based upon interviews that women, classmates of mine, who were going to graduate, had with these various firms and their interviewing partner, whomever it may have been. Many of those firms agreed and consented to nondiscriminatory practices moving forward.
One firm decided not to play ball and cooperate, and they actually went through litigation before they finally agreed to do so. You could tell that it was new ground for them. They had never seen women make arguments like this before. There are so few women that they would have interviewed. When you’re 3% of a graduating class, I don’t think we were encouraged to look at large law firms as potential employers, and we did that.
JW: And you did mention about Justice Constance Baker Motley being one of the judges?
MK: She was the presiding judge, and she was asked to recuse herself because she was a woman, and that therefore, she couldn’t be fair. And she said, “No.” She wrote an opinion that said, “I believe I can be fair even though I’m a woman.”
JW: Outrageous. I wonder if we’ve come a long way or not?
MK: I think we have. I do, but it’s something that’s still in process. There are still men who are, for whatever their reasons, not willing to consider women to be equal. Sure, they can work here, but they’re not equal. And if you look at the number, and I don’t have the percentages right now at my fingertips, but the number of women who are partners in these large firms, does not in any way match the number of women in percentage who are graduating from law school.
JW: At one point you worked for a professor when you were in law school. Daniel Collins. What was that about?
MK: I needed part time work because I was supporting myself, so that’s how it started. But in addition, we found that we could really collaborate. He was involved in the AALS, the American Association of Law Schools, and through his involvement there, he and I both created a program to bring the Equal Rights Amendment and the issue of equal rights for women to the fore. He was a great supporter.
JW: That was very interesting. And so, that continued in future years, this committee?
MK: Yes, it did.
JW: Another experience you mentioned earlier was your Moot Court experience. You may have to explain what Moot Court is for the audience.
MK: Moot Court is a kind of forum that’s used in law schools to help students develop their advocacy skills when they’re going to be in court arguing a certain case and how to present themselves. So, it’s practice for that kind of advocacy. You can sign up for it, it’s voluntary.
I had a partner who was a woman, and as it turned out, our adversary couple, who were male, one of them felt that we really shouldn’t be doing this at all and didn’t treat my partner equally. For some reason, he felt that we were trying to get advantage because we were women rather than winning on our own merits. As it turned out, we did win on our merits. I went on to the Moot Court arguments on the regional level and won the Silver Cup.
JW: Oh, that’s really fabulous. How wonderful. And also, earlier you mentioned the New York State bar exam experience.
MK: Oh, yes. When I was studying for the bar exam, we somehow learned that women were all assigned to one location, even though the system was supposed to be anonymous. I called the Board of Bar Examiners and I asked them why they had women all in one place. I think we were at the Biltmore, and the person who answered me said, well, for convenience, because you have to be accompanied to the restroom, and it’s easier for us to have all the women, for administrative convenience in one location.
The real point was, that if we were all assigned to one place, it would be very easy for someone to find out who the women were because we were all assigned by number to one location. This created the possibility of some fraudulent review of our exams. So, I took that to ACLU and they agreed. I ended up as the name plaintiff, suing the Board of Bar Examiners for discrimination against women. The morning of our exam, the head of the Board of Bar Examiners came out and said, “We have agreed to an injunction. We will never engage in this practice again.”
JW: So, what did you do after you graduated and passed the bar?
MK: I worked for a Wall Street firm. And I have to say, they treated me fairly, although when I arrived and I told them that I wanted to work in litigation, I could hear rumblings among some of the people, like, “What are we going to do with her?” They didn’t have any women in litigation. I was the first woman to seriously want to do so. And I said to them, “All you have to do is give me work, just like you give to the men, and we can go from there.” The rumbling settled down, and I was assigned to litigation and worked with some very interesting, talented and well-trained lawyers in the firm.
JW: And you stayed there for some time?
MK: I stayed there for about two years, and then we created the Feminist Law Firm.
JW: Before we go into the Feminist Law Firm, I know that you worked in 1970 at the Rutgers Law School. It may not have been a paying job, but you did some work there, right?
MK: Well, it wasn’t really work. I was a law student then, and my colleague Jan Goodman and I went down on several occasions. We were invited by Judge, then Professor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We were invited to come and discuss women’s rights and to do research on our own, and to bring it to her seminar which is what we did. So we went down there, and I guess we acted as unpaid seminar participants. It was a wonderful experience. Judge Ginsburg later told me that we made her a feminist.
JW: And she did then have a women’s rights project at Rutgers, right?
MK: Yes, she did.
JW: You did help draft a brief for an important case that she argued.
MK: That’s correct. It was a very important case in terms of judicial meaning, and that was Reed vs. Reed. It came out of Idaho and a young man had died. The law in Idaho was that an administrator of an estate had to be a male, so that this woman’s ex-husband came forward and she challenged him, and she said in court, “I want to be appointed the administrator.” And that’s how the case started.
The Supreme Court agreed that that law was unconstitutional and that women’s rights deserve to have equal treatment under the law, and they should no longer be subjected to a strict scrutiny test, which meant that we have to examine this twice as hard as we do other cases. That we can look at the case on its face, and if it says only one sex can be in a position we know. We don’t have to look behind it. We know that there’s sex discrimination involved. And so that was a very important precedent in law. Made it much easier to win cases that resembled this in any way.
JW: Did you stay in touch with her?
MK: We did, but it would be periodic. I didn’t have a personal friendship with her, but we had a relationship of trust, and if you will, of friendship that continued. And she recognized our contribution in her writings, and in books written about her, we were recognized.
JW: After you left the firm, you started your own firm with other women, so please tell us about that.
MK: Classmates of mine, plus Carol Bellamy, who at that time was New York City council and also became a New York state senator. She was one of our partners. We were given initially, a grant by an organization that wanted us to engage, if necessary, in litigation that would assure women’s rights. Beyond that, we also took private clients.
We brought lawsuits against Manufacturers Hanover, against Newsday, against New York Times. We represented Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine. I guess we were something of a celebrity in the world of feminism, because this hadn’t happened before. We were all women, and we were feminists in open declaration of our work, and not just a group of women practicing together. It was really an achievement. I don’t even know if we realized how important it was that we were there, but we were.
JW: Tell me a little more about one case that’s particularly memorable.
MK: I think the Manufacturers Hanover case was particularly memorable because it involved women trying to get loans from the bank. Whether they were starting a business themselves, just personal needs, or buying real estate or setting up an office for themselves, and they were simply blocked out.
They couldn’t get it unless their husband was buying, or the husband went and got it for them, or their father. That’s how women could get loans in that day. So, it was probably one of the most important suits we brought, and it resulted in a judgment in our favor because they finally settled. They simply had nowhere else to go.
JW: In a couple of years after that, you moved on to a different firm that you created, right?
MK: I did. I moved on. I had moved by this time to Westchester County and didn’t enjoy the commutation process. I left it behind, and found in Westchester, with suburban women there were women here interested in feminist interest and movement, too, and women lawyers who also needed to be bonding together. And we did. We formed a Westchester Women’s Bar Association in the first year I worked here.
JW: What were some of the things the organization did?
MK: We made sure that we were recognized here. We still are. It’s a very important bar association still, in Westchester County. One of the events that occurred was the judicial interviewing every year that we did of potential candidates for judgeships. All major bar associations did this, and we chose to do so as well.
One year, the republican party refused to come. Refused to allow its judicial nominees to come before our committee and be interviewed. They didn’t think we were important. I went right straight to the Westchester newspapers and let them know about it and the next thing you knew, there was a big editorial on the subject. The following week, all those candidates called us to be interviewed.
JW: You talked about persuading Justice Cook to establish a task force. Can you explain that?
MK: He was certainly an ally of ours, and we realized that on a colloquial level going through the bar association activities. But then when we talked to him about that, he said he would do it. It was really important because it was the first time that this subject on a state level, was taken as a serious topic. For not only discussion, but investigation of numbers and practices in the courts and the other agencies in New York.
It came up with a report which established how woefully short the number of women, compared to the number of women lawyers who were available to serve, how many of them were not in the practicing areas, including judgeships. It definitely led to an increase in the number of women who came forward and sought positions either in legislative or judicial activity after that. We definitely had an influence because it was the chief judge of the state of New York who gave the imprimatur to this activity.
JW: And a report was issued and made public. Is that what you’re saying?
JW: Well, your document kind of ended there, so we’re talking about the late ’80s, but I’m sure you continued to do more feminist things after that.
MK: Yes, I think so. In addition to being a mother at that point, so that I was sharing my life with them. We had an oversight committee here in Westchester dealing with women in the law. By this time, we were dealing with issues like consumerism, things that happen to women in that area, and moving right into the matrimonial area. The question of, and the problems of domestic violence and whether they were taken seriously.
Westchester County now has a domestic violence committee, which is a very serious committee and does its work, and is I think, very diligent. The Westchester Women’s Bar Association brought that to a level of important discussion instead of scuttling it. And as you know, on the state level, there have been a number of laws which have been changed so that women are treated more fairly in family law. Many of them, the Westchester Women’s Bar and now in addition, the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, which we also helped to create, so that we are active in the legislation at all times on the state level. And it’s essential that we be there.
JW: Did you continue to practice law through all this?
MK: Yes, I did. My practice evolved. I no longer became involved in sex discrimination cases for various reasons, but mostly that my firm didn’t have the resources to work with large sex discrimination cases. It was better to recommend them to firms that were really set up to do so administratively. But certainly, I became active in the area of women’s rights in matrimonial matters, including in individual cases. That became very important.
JW: The final question. How did your involvement in the Second Wave movement affect you personally? How your experiences during those early years affected your life.
MK: Well, at some point they made me feel, because I was raised a practicing Catholic, they made me feel that I wasn’t in the right place in the Catholic Church, which was my tradition and twelve years of Catholic training. And that became a very difficult process to continue to accept.
When I realized that the church was in no way willing to recognize women in anything except a subordinate role, whether it was on the altar, I mean, women couldn’t even be altar boys. Women had no place. And in addition, I had serious questions about the area of reproductive rights as well. And so, I stepped back from it for a time. Eventually I came back and decided that I wanted to be a feminist inside the church, and not outside. And that’s what I am. I would say it’s not a harmonious process, but decided that I refuse to leave. That I belong in the church as a voice that speaks for women.
I was part of the process in my church years ago when altar boys were not women and girls. And when my children were in their early teens, I insisted that the church re-examine it on a local level, which they had a right to do at that point, and we did, and the church began to change. It still has a long way to go, and I don’t think women will be priests, which they should be, because they will influence the church very well, during my lifetime. But I’m optimistic at some point that it will happen.
I’ve decided I am a Catholic, and I will stay that way in spite of the inequities that still continue to exist in the Catholic Church. I think that in the area of reproductive rights the Church is extremely entrenched. And of course, there are also women that accept that position. But there are many of us, men and women, who question it and who don’t believe that it’s automatically the law of God that as soon as there’s conception that there’s a person. But this is obviously something still on the table.
JW: Do you have any concluding comments that you’d like to add?
MK: That I hope more young women are influenced by the history of my life, the things that I have done and others like me have done. That we move forward and they take on the task going forward.