THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I was part of an era where women were speaking out and speaking up.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, January 2022
JW: Please give us your full name and also, when and where you were born.
NA: Full name is Nan Aron, only seven letters. Born in New York City at Flower-Fifth Avenue Hospital, 1948.
JW: Tell us a little about your life before you became a lawyer, your childhood. What led you in the direction that you ultimately went?
NA: I was born into a family with many, many strong women. My family came over to the United States during the Great Migration, actually, in the 1880’s. My mother’s father was one of 13 brothers and sisters. My grandmother was one of six. On my father’s side, there were also a number of siblings of my grandparents, but I think my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side were probably the most influential people just because of their drive, because of their occupations, and because of their commitment to social justice really ensured that I would go into a world of social justice.
Many of my aunts were social workers, were teachers. Many were extremely political. Some were members of the Communist Party. Some of them, I can recall, told me stories of raising money during the Spanish Civil War. They were outspoken. One aunt married a publisher of the Amsterdam News in New York City, and she went on to become very involved in the publishing world, but also taught.
But I think, in part, because of the immigrant struggle and because of the incredible ambition of immigrants who came to New York during the late 1800’s, early 1900’s, they needed to earn a living. They needed to find housing. They needed to make their way to a place where they could take care of their kids. But it was also taking care of the world and taking care of the country. And they instilled in me a passion for social justice.
During high school, I remember being a counselor at a camp run by the Masons. In 1965, this was a camp that brought young girls together from the inner city of New York. Our purpose was to give these girls the best summer they could possibly have. That certainly introduced and exposed me to a world where young girls, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds, were delightful, inquisitive, but also needed a leg up, mentors to help them see and imagine what their future could be.
JW: Was it an interracial group?
NA: Interestingly, the camp was run by a group of Jewish Masons in Tallman, New York, which is right next to Spring Valley. Almost all the girls were black or Latino, mostly from the Bronx. The next summer, I was a counselor for young girls in Yonkers, New York. In those days, Yonkers had pockets of impoverished families. Again, they were mostly girls with whom I worked, and I would like to help develop during that summer.
JW: When did you become aware of the “second wave women’s movement?”
NA: I grew up along with my peers in one of the most exciting times to be a woman. I graduated high school in ’66. It was the late ’60s, ’70s, and fell right in the cusp of the women’s movement. I was part of an era where women were speaking out and speaking up and beginning to stand up for their rights. I feel so lucky and fortunate to have been able to grow up right at that moment.
I guess though for my early years, I was most concerned with women who were overlooked, meaning women who were poor. In 1968 during college, I got a job at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, and went to work for the Manhattan Court Employment Project, which engaged those young men, at that point, no women, in a program which enabled young men who were arrested on minor misdemeanors, jumping a turnstile, to be able to, after 90 days of jail, be eligible for participation in a program that would give them a job for 3-6 months. If these men were successfully engaged in that work, it would get their sentences dismissed.
Well, I realized that women were not at all included in that court employment program. I created a project which had me speaking to prostitutes, streetwalkers in New York. Those were most of the women who were arrested for crimes. My goal was to try to induce them to also participate in the Court Employment Project. The work resulted in the first-time participation of women in this project.
But I have to say it wasn’t entirely a success because, frankly, more women, more streetwalkers, prostitutes, earned a lot more turning tricks in one night than they could in a regular job doing secretarial assistance work. But in any event, it did certainly open my eyes to the plight of women.
JW: You did go to law school after college, right?
NA: Well, after the Vera Institute, I went to Oberlin College and I persuaded my dean to allow me to spend my last year at Oberlin working in an urban fellowship program in Cleveland, where again, I spent the year in a women’s prison trying to get women the services they needed, visits with their children, represented women before judges trying to mitigate their sentences, spoke with probation officers and the like to get the women into some kind of programming.
Certainly, at Oberlin, I was involved in many social justice endeavors, primarily civil rights and actions against the war in Vietnam. From Oberlin, I went to law school in Cleveland. In law school, I founded the Women and Law Program at the law school. We had a wonderful law teacher at Case Western Reserve, a woman named Jane Picker, who was a phenomenal litigator, civil rights lawyer, and we founded the program, and Jane Picker did the teaching.
I remember in law school, we went down to Columbus, Ohio, several times, lobbied for repeal of abortion law that was incredibly restrictive. During law school, I also worked at Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services in 1972 and represented women in divorce, separation, and child custody proceedings. That was one of the summers. I spent the summer there and again represented women in court.
Certainly, it became so clear to me that many people at the time considered custody battles, separation, divorces, to be social work. Certainly, it wasn’t social work to me. Many people viewed this work as all emotion and not law. Again, some of the decisions that were made about women on their behalf affected not just their social standing and ability to raise a family and be in a family, but affected their lifelong careers in some instances. The work extended way beyond just a child custody proceeding.
JW: Right. But I can see that people thought of that as women’s law, soft, family stuff?
NA: Right, exactly. That was law school. That was college.
JW: Then you moved to DC?
NA: Moved to DC in ’73. Seems so long ago. It was a long time ago. Moved here and got a job at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where we litigated cases involving race and sex discrimination. I certainly was involved in representing a number of women. I remember at the American Greeting Cards Company in Cleveland, Ohio; Hewlett-Packard, we brought a major civil rights case because women were not being promoted to higher paying jobs at the same rate men were. Much of my work at the EEOC was litigation brought by women who just wanted a fair shake.
JW: Were you involved in any women’s organizations?
NA: Yes. During those years, I joined, in 1973, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund. It’s now called the National Partnership for Women & Families. I immediately became active in the Fund. The meetings were at night, so they were very convenient for me. I participated in the screening committee which decided which cases for the Fund to bring. I chaired the employment counseling committee, and as part of my responsibilities there, I wrote a manual for women here in the District on how to bring an employment discrimination case. I don’t know that I’ve got that manual. I hope maybe the Fund still has it.
I also was elected president of the Fund for several years. My day job and my night jobs were very much in sync. Because I was involved in national litigation at the EEOC, my work in the Fund was much more practical, brought me in contact with a lot of women here in the District who had difficulties and certainly exposed me to a lot of lawyers here in DC, Maryland and Virginia, who were just beginning to bring women’s rights cases.
In fact, I almost brought a case on my own behalf, but we didn’t need to go to litigation. When we moved to DC, I went to open a bank account in my own name. I was married. In my case, it was humorous because my last name and my husband’s are almost identical. But it was during the early days of the women’s liberation movement, and I was not going to take my husband’s name. It was part of what we all agreed was acceptable and important.
I remember going to the bank and trying to open an account and the bank informed me that I could only open the account in my husband’s name. I remember going home and calling up the head of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, Judy Lichtman. I wrote a letter to the bank at that point on behalf of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund saying that this was completely unnecessary, probably discriminatory, and that we would be challenging this in court, and got word from the bank that they have changed their policy.
That was, again, very heady early days of the movement when women were feeling empowered, not just here in DC, but all over the country, including in the workplace. The EEOC had about 100 women lawyers, very committed to pursuing cases on behalf of women’s rights. In those days, before the Republicans took over in 1980, the Commission actively was aggressively pursuing cases filed by women across the country.
JW: Back to the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, you said you were on the screening committee on employment issues?
NA: The screening committee received requests from women from DC, Maryland, Virginia, asking for help on a range of issues, some related to child custody and divorce, some related to employment, but on a whole range of issues, not simply employment discrimination cases. There were maybe five or six lawyers on the committee who would screen the cases. Then if we agreed that a case was worthwhile to pursue, we would then call upon any number of women who had indicated that they would be volunteer attorneys for the Fund, and we would send cases to the volunteer lawyers for them to take up.
Those early years drew a group of very passionate women lawyers who were excited to be bringing some of these cases. I would say those days were very heady. Much of the challenge, though, still lies ahead for us. I remember writing complaints for women who were unable to get various jobs or unable to be promoted, and I remember spending a lot of time writing those complaints.
Then years later, I recall reading the complaint that was filed on behalf of a nationwide group of women against Walmart in a sex discrimination case, and I was struck. I don’t think I was surprised, but I was struck by how the allegations in the Walmart case that have been filed decades after the complaints I wrote, very much resembled the arguments and the facts situations that we raised in our complaints in the early 1970’s.
In those years, my interests really were to represent women on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. From the EEOC, I went, in 1976, to the National Prison Project, where I litigated cases on behalf of prisoners around the country challenging conditions of confinement. I do recall one case, and most of these cases were brought on behalf of male prisoners. I remember saying to the director of the prison project, I’d really like to find some cases representing women, and ended up taking a case on behalf of a group of women prisoners at Bedford Hills, New York.
Bedford Hills has housed women prisoners for decades. In fact, some very well known women prisoners, including Jean Harris, were sent to Bedford Hills. I represented a group of women there who were punished not by physical abuse, but emotional abuse. These women prisoners were given heavy doses on a daily basis of psychotropic drugs to keep their behavior in line with what the prison deemed acceptable behavior, whatever that meant, probably behavior that was quiet, subservient, patient.
We filed this case. There were also subjects in a behavior modification program, again, that relied on the giving of drugs. I remember winning that case on behalf of women prisoners before a wonderful district court judge named Marvin Frankel in New York City who sat on the Southern District who awarded the women monetary damages based on this forced medication that they were subjected to. Again, there were judges on some of these courts that were incredibly open minded, understood what the plaint of people, again, who are not so well to do in society, very keen on doling out justice from the courts.
I myself was subject to, as many of us were, sex discrimination in my professional life. Often some of the mistreatment that I was subjected to forced me to make decisions about my career that I wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t myself experienced discrimination very much like the situation of Lilly Ledbetter. I don’t know that many of your people will know the story of Lilly Ledbetter, but I’ll tell my story.
I realized one day at the prison project that I was being paid less than the lawyer next to me, who I adore. We both had worked at the prison project the same amount of time. We both graduated law school at the same time. We both at that time had two children. We both had litigated cases. I discovered by accident that he was being paid more than I was.
I remember after that discovery, going home and practicing before my husband what I would say to my boss, the executive director the next day. I approached the director the next day. I thought strategically said, “I’m wondering if you might consider paying me what you’re paying the other lawyer,” and laid out what the similarities were. The response I got from the director was, “Well, I cannot pay you what I pay your colleague. He’s the head of a family, you’re not.”
I remember saying, “You can’t say that. You just can’t say that.” But I will just say parenthetically, the same statement was made decades later by an employer in that Walmart case. I remember saying to him, “Think about it. Take 24 hours. I’m going to come back.” I came back in 24 hours. He remained adamant that he would not give me a raise. I said to him, at that point, “I think I would like to bring this up to the ACLU.”
I called the ACLU head. I recounted the story and the facts, and his response was, “Well, man, if I make you whole and pay you on an equal basis, I’ll be opening pandora’s box.” I said to him, “Well, I think that’s the point of what I’m saying. If I’m being treated this way, I think probably other women at the ACLU are as well.” He said, “I can’t make the change.”
I was unwilling to stop there. I called the human resources director, who had just been appointed at the ACLU. He and I agreed that we would conduct a survey of women working at the ACLU. I should say, in those years, there weren’t many people of color. We found that women were not getting paid on an equal basis to men. He presented the survey to the board, and the board of the ACLU came up with an objective schedule, which I know is used today and certainly was put into effect in those years.
But I knew, as so many women plaintiffs come to know, whether they win or lose their cases, that bringing litigation on your own behalf or speaking up on your own behalf, being a plaintiff is not easy. Even if you get the redress you seek, it often means that you need to make a change in your life or make a change in your career because you’ve left behind hard feelings with peers and with supervisors and directors. As a result of that experience, I decided to go off on my own, run my own organization, and I founded Alliance for Justice several months after leaving the National Prison Project.
JW: The Prison Project was part of the ACLU, right?
NA: That’s correct.
JW: You were head of the Alliance until very recently. Tell us a little bit about how women’s issues came up, and it may explain the purpose of the Alliance for Justice.
NA: Alliance for Justice is an association of over 130 organizations, and its programs are twofold. One is referred to as the Judicial Selection Project, which was created in 1984, coinciding with Ronald Reagan’s run for a second term for presidency. During his campaign, he announced that he would pick judges who met three criteria: one, supported prayer in school; two, were opposed to civil rights; and three, vehemently opposed to abortion.
We felt, in 1984, that it was important for the Senate, particularly Democrats, to understand just who these candidates and judges were going to be. When Reagan was reelected in ’84, he embarked very aggressively on an effort to pick judges who met those criteria. Our project collected research on each of these nominees, brought the research to the press, to the Senate, and equally and probably most importantly, organizations around the country, including women’s groups.
Many of the nominees in the 1980’s sent up by the Reagan White House were mostly men who had records of hostility toward women and women’s rights. We began to announce opposition to many of these candidates, collect research, and began educating people about the importance of the federal courts and how these judges holding such powerful life tenured positions could really wreak havoc on the lives of women.
We also found that many of the nominees in the 1980’s and early ’90s were men who belong in clubs that discriminated against women, and also, Blacks and Jews. Again, we publicized the fact that so many of these nominees did belong to exclusionary clubs.
Well, today, you find that many, if not most, clubs in the country have invited women and people of color and people who are Jewish into membership. Maybe it’s token participation by these individuals, but most clubs have opened up. But when we started this work, most clubs had very tight restrictions against certain people. I guess, over the years, during years when Republicans were in control of the administration and the Senate, we opposed almost any judge who had a record against women’s rights.
In some instances, we opposed many women who had dreadful records on sex discrimination. In fact, there were many women who had records of discrimination. I can think of one notable judge, Edith Jones, who went to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, whom I’m pleased to say we stopped from going to the Supreme Court. Although you see women lawyers, judges become justices like Amy Coney Barrett who have records, who have fought against women’s rights.
However, during times when Democrats were in office, we very much pushed women, worked with women’s groups around the country to recruit women candidates for judgeships, starting with Jimmy Carter in the late 1970’s, who, interestingly, probably was one of the most committed Presidents in modern history, favoring diversity on the bench, more so than Clinton or Obama.
We now do see during the Biden administration the appointment of some wonderful women to the federal bench, whose names we collected a year before Biden was elected so that when he came into office, assuming he won the election, could immediately begin to appoint some terrific women.
JW: Can you give a synopsis about your involvement with Anita Hill in the Thomas hearing?
NA: Clarence Thomas came in as chair of the EEOC after I left, but people knew his reputation because when he took up the helm of the Commission, he was a Reagan appointee and very disinclined to bring sex discriminations on behalf of the Commission. He was well known to us as civil rights lawyers. He was initially appointed to the DC Circuit where he served for 16 months. We knew, at that point, that he was probably on his way to the Supreme Court.
We, at Alliance, I remember, put out a statement and prepared a report in opposition to his DC Circuit appointment based on the work he had done at the Department of Education and the EEOC work that was problematic for women and people of color. When he was nominated for the Supreme Court by George Bush, we immediately announced our opposition then, again, based on his record of hostility to women’s rights and civil rights.
We learned quite by accident that a woman who had worked for him had been subjected to sexual harassment. We never contacted that woman. We contacted the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked the committee to investigate. We had no idea whether the allegations of sexual harassment were real, but asked the committee to look into them. The committee, as people might remember, was disinclined to conduct an investigation. These allegations were brought by Thomas against Anita Hill. Somehow, the allegations wound up being shared by reporters at National Public Radio and a Long Island newspaper. The allegations were made public.
The country, in 1991, not only learned about these allegations but, I think, was educated really for the first time. These hearings were explosive. They took place over a holiday weekend. I think hundreds of thousands of Americans were glued to their TVs, learning, many for the first time, about sexual harassment and how unbelievably damaging it is. When those hearings began, polls were taken.
Most Americans, again, at the beginning of the hearings, believed Clarence Thomas and thought that she was lying. At the end of those hearings, another set of polls were conducted, finding that a majority of Americans believed Anita Hill. It was really an education on behalf of Americans. It was an education about sexual harassment, even though Clarence Thomas was confirmed by the smallest vote at that time, 52 to 48 in the Senate; and became, as we all know, a Supreme Court Justice, where he has almost consistently voted against civil rights.
Following those hearings and that confirmation, a Democrat was elected President of the United States, Bill Clinton and women were elected in record numbers to seats in the House and the Senate. I think they had a very powerful impact on society. I’d like to think the world has changed. Although, certainly, Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing showed that we still have a lot of work to be done on sexual harassment.
JW: And Kavanaugh, obviously, as well. But it’s out there as an issue and we have work to do to make people accountable. But it is now an issue, where it really wasn’t.
NA: Right. And it certainly gave rise to the MeToo movement. It put survivors of sexual harassment out front in a very important way. It furthered and advanced a critically important conversation in society.
JW: Absolutely. But let me ask you one last question. We’ve heard about how the women’s movement and activities on behalf of women affected your professional life. What would you say about your personal life?
NA: In a very direct way, my daughters, like so many of our daughters, are able to have families, raise children, and also have meaningful jobs. I think that’s really important. I don’t know, but maybe, my daughters certainly saw their mother going to work every day, doing work that I love doing. I do think they have incorporated some of the values of the women’s rights movement.
I would say that working in the nonprofit world for a lawyer – as opposed to the corporate world, where I know women are still trying to advance at the same rate as men – many women are running organizations, many women are lending a helping hand to women lawyers, women activists, and their organizations.
I, again, grew up and began work at a wonderful moment where women were being employed in work that was incredibly important and meaningful to us. However, I do think many of the challenges remain. In terms of leading an organization, I sometimes think women’s organizations get short shrift. Mine was not a women’s organization, but I do think there is a double standard still, not just in the corporate world, but in the nonprofit world as well.
We just need to be well-organized, engaged, collaborative with each other. It’s much easier to fight the good fight with others and with colleagues. I very much see that as an ongoing vision and hope that women will be supportive of each other and collaborative and be able, not only to ensure success for themselves, their organizations, but for the women behind them.