Nancy Stanley

“The Women’s Movement Gave Me Purpose.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, January 2023

NS:  My full name is Nancy Elizabeth Stanley, and I was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on August 18, 1943.

JW:  Tell us a little about your childhood and what you think were the influences that led you to what you ultimately did.

NS:  For the first eight years of my life, I lived in a Czech community in Cicero, Illinois. And then my folks bought a little piece of property in Lemont, Illinois, where they built a fabulous house and where my sister and I grew up. The Czech heritage has never been predominantly in my life, but both my parents had complete Czech ancestry, so I do sort of connect with that in my own mind.

The major influence, I think on my career, was my mom, who always was the primary breadwinner in our family. She was a registered nurse and when I was growing up, she got a master’s degree in public health. I wonder what she’d be thinking about the public health situation today. And, you know, it just never occurred to me, literally, it never occurred to me that I would not work. I always assumed that I would work. And it was really that subtle influence rather than any discussions about women’s rights that influenced my career, I think, that persuaded me to go to law school. That idea came out of nowhere. I just had that idea, took the LSAT’s and decided to do it.

JW:  And there weren’t that many women that were applying then. It was around what year?

NS:  Well, I started law school in ‘67, and my class had about 10% women. It was definitely a hostile environment for women, largely because of the way law was taught in those days. The Socratic method, in front of hundreds of other students so that you could be humiliated and embarrassed easily.

JW:  Yes. So, tell us what law school was like then.

NS:  I should first tell you how I actually got the idea about law school. After I graduated from college, my friend Sue Ross, who I think you probably have already interviewed, came here to DC. I got a job working on the Hill for a member of Congress, and I was aware that there was a young woman about my own age who came into the office at night and ran off letters on the RoboType machine. It was a very primitive device, looking back at it, but it enabled her to crank out hundreds of letters to constituents.

Anyway, I was told that she was going to law school during the day, and really, that’s what gave me the idea. Nobody encouraged me to go to law school, but as I say, I took the LSAT, and they were good enough to encourage me to continue in that way. I went to GW, George Washington Law School. My last year I spent working for Edgar and Jean Cahn, who were civil rights activists of the era, and I finished out my law school education at night. GW in those days, had a night school, and I graduated in 1971.

JW:  And what did you do for Edgar Cahn?

NS:  Well, it was mostly what did I do for Edgar and Jean together. They, at the time, were developing a curriculum for Vista volunteers who were getting master’s degrees in law. I wrote the curriculum over a three-day weekend during a major snowstorm in DC. The Cahn’s operated on an emergency basis always, and they managed to hold everything together by using people like me who were looking for meaningful work. I was actually still a law student when I did this.

JW:  How did you get involved in the women’s movement?

NS:  Susan and I were friends, and we were talking about women’s rights. She was very committed to women’s rights, even that early. And I, in working for the Cahn’s, became aware that they were doing an FCC media project on behalf of African American people, largely.

The idea was, that they would file petitions to deny license renewal with the Federal Communications Commission and force the FCC to air more programming relevant to Black people, and hire more Black people, and so on and so forth. And I, when I was working for them, observed this activity and started to theorize about whether or not that couldn’t be applied to women as well.

When I was still a law student, I worked on two things. I worked on a law review article spelling out this strategy for women, the name of which I actually cannot remember at this moment. But at any rate, I wrote that article, and I also, behind the scenes, encouraged the National Organization for Women to file two petitions to deny license renewal. One here in DC and one in New York City. There was a lot going on all at the same time.

Also, while I was in law school, I got the dean to agree to start a course in women in the law. My good friend Gladys Kessler was one of the teachers, and Susan [Ross] taught initially. I also taught that course one year, so that was another activity.

When I tell this story, nobody ever believes it, but it’s true. Bella Abzug had just been elected to Congress and was scheduled to take office in January of 1971. I got the bright idea of going to her and trying to persuade her to hire me as a legislative assistant for women’s rights. So, I’ll never forget this, I tramped up to New York City, there was a major snowstorm, and I went to visit her in her house in the Village and had an interview with her.

In the course of which, she said to me, “Well, you know, I’m not really into women’s rights. I’m a Women Strike for Peace person.” But she said, “You should talk to Mim Kelber, who was her longtime assistant and very close friend. So, I did talk to Mim, and Mim thought it was a good idea and hired me to work in the Washington office on women’s rights for Bella Abzug. So, when I tell people that I turned Bella Abzug into a feminist, it’s true, but nobody believes it. But that’s how things were done. We were all busily working behind the scenes, doing scraps of things for women’s rights here and there and so on.

I came back to Washington, I finished up my law review article, and I worked for Bella. I actually did not work for her for very long. Nobody worked for her for very long. I worked for her for about eight or nine months, and then got a job with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While I worked for her, I drafted some testimony that she gave on the Equal Rights Amendment, and in her name, inserted various pro-feminist things in the Congressional Record, and other odds and ends as well.

Also, during this period, a group of us started the WLDF, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, which today is called the National Partnership for Women and Families. I cannot remember what year; I was either still in law school or a recent graduate. I remember meeting in the lady’s room at George Washington Law School. That’s where we met and where we had our meetings to take our first cases.

We decided we would function by getting lawyers to file amicus curiae briefs in litigation on behalf of women’s rights, in cases that were being brought by someone else. And I remember sitting in the ladies room with the other women who were doing this. We had a little committee to assign and farm out these cases, and that’s where we did our feminist work. In the ladies room. This must have been ’71 or ’72.

I also during this same period, met Mary Catherine Kilday, who worked for WRC-TV here in town, and who felt that she had been discriminated against because she was a woman. And of course, she was right about that. I encouraged her to file a grievance with the Federal Communications Commission and to file a complaint with the EEOC. I couldn’t do that for her because I was not yet a lawyer, I hadn’t yet taken the bar. I introduced her to Gladys, and Gladys represented Mary Catherine Kilday in that employment charge.

That complaint and the outcome, which was on Mary Catherine’s side, subsequently became part of the petition to deny license renewal at WRC-TV, which then went to the Federal Court of Appeals, as did the similar petition that had been filed against WABC in New York. And so, there were two cases pending during this period, ’71, ’72. It goes on and on, but it’s all of this kind of underground activity.

JW:  Yes, but that was obviously, like you say, laying the groundwork for the next phase. The petition for renewal would be denied unless they did what?

NS:  Had the commission granted the petitions to deny a license renewal, it would have been compelled to hold a hearing on the employment and other practices of the two stations at issue. And the complaints alleged not only that the stations were discriminating in terms of employment, but also that they should have been airing more programs on women’s issues. That was the strategy I outlined in my law review article.

What ultimately happened, was that the FCC, which had rarely held a hearing to deny license renewal for any station, just sat on the petitions for years and years and years. During that time period it started hiring women, including women, to appear on air. Ultimately, it dismissed our petitions in both of the cases. We went to the Court of Appeals to appeal their dismissal of our petitions and sad to say, we lost.

But the reason we lost, as spelled out in the court’s decision, was that there was no need to hold a hearing because the stations were in fact now hiring women. So, I don’t know to what extent my legal theory encouraged the stations to hire women. I’ll never know the answer to that. The times were changing of course, and more and more women’s rights was now on the public agenda. So, they might have done this without facing our legal action. They might have, but it all kind of mushroomed.

Then I went to work at the EEOC, and while I was at the EEOC, I argued a case called Geduldig vs. Aiello. It was first litigated before a three-judge court in California and I was the EEOC’s lawyer who spoke. Geduldig was the case in which a woman had been denied disability benefits at her place of employment for pregnancy benefits.

The employer, and I cannot remember who Aiello was actually, what sort of employment situation this was, but the employer had a disability policy, paid time off, for other kinds of disabilities relating to men, but it did not provide disability benefits for disabilities related to pregnancy. Geduldig appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals.

I don’t think it ever went to the district court. I think it went straight to the three-judge panel of the Federal Court of Appeals in San Francisco. I was at the EEOC at this point, so there were other women working on this issue, and there was a question in our minds about how to argue the case. Should we argue that women should be entitled to disability benefits on the same basis as men? That is, when they were actually disabled? Or should we argue for preferential treatment for women who were pregnant, whether or not they were really disabled by the pregnancy? And that was a fork in the road.

Ultimately, the equal treatment approach was adopted by Ruth Ginsburg when she filed all of her subsequent cases on sex discrimination. This ultimately resulted in a case going to the Supreme Court under a different name. We won before the three-judge panel and then the other side petitioned for rehearing before the 9th Circuit. That’s where we lost, and that’s why it then went to the Supreme Court, and Congress passed the Pregnancy Act.

By that time, I had left the EEOC to join the women’s rights law firm that was formed in New York. So, I was no longer at the EEOC to brief the government side of this. And actually, it would have been the Solicitor General of the United States who would have presented the government’s position.

JW:  So, tell us about the law firm. You said the feminist law firm?

NS:  Yes. At about the same time, my good friend Susan Deller Ross and her colleagues from her class at NYU Law School, decided to form a women’s rights law firm in New York City, which would take on employment cases and other instances of discrimination against women, and they invited me to join them.

So, my husband and I moved to New York City, and I worked in the law firm for four years. The firm started in ’73 and it dissolved in ’77. And during that time, lo and behold, one of the things we did was to sue NBC under the Employment Discrimination Act. It was strictly an employment discrimination suit.

JW:  What happened with that lawsuit?

NS:  Well, we ultimately settled it. We settled it for what we thought was a substantial amount of money at the time, which it really wasn’t, looking back. But that, too, was encouraging the networks to pay more attention to women’s rights and to hire and promote women. The signal thing about that case is how close we became to the women, the plaintiff group. In employment cases, you do tend to become close to your client.

They had formed a group, and they contributed money to the group to subsidize the employment of their lawyers. Although part of the settlement involved paying a fee, part of the settlement also was to define more clearly, the paths within the organization to promotion. And make sure that women got on that promotion track. The name plaintiffs got certain benefits, certain promotions, and it was a very emotional endeavor. We ended up settling it at 30 Rockefeller Center. That’s where we went for our negotiation meetings.

The other thing that was wonderful about this case was that we also arranged to see behind the scenes, behind the camera meetings of on-air productions. So, for example, we went to one airing of the Today Show, and as it happened, Bob and Ray were the guests on the Today Show for that day. I remember we were behind the cameras and behind the glass partition. What I remember, is that Bob and Ray were so funny that even the cameramen were cracking up. Everybody was cracking up watching and listening to them.

After the law firm dissolved in 1977, I moved back to Washington. We went our disparate ways, the four or five of us, and I went to work at the Justice Department and began working on environmental issues. Didn’t really continue working on women’s rights issues.

While I was working at the Justice Department, Barbara Babcock was appointed Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division at the Department of Justice. This was during the Carter administration. One of the things the Carter administration did was to revise the way federal judges had been selected up until then.

There was a very old-fashioned process for becoming a federal judge. Basically, the whole thing was controlled by an unknown civil servant in one of the Department of Justice’s offices. He was in the Deputy Attorney General’s office, and he was the one who vetted the candidates for the federal bench, and who talked to senators about who the senator’s favorites were. He was the one, basically, who made the decision. That process was reorganized, and there was a committee that was formed that met in the Deputy Attorney General’s office periodically, to review the various candidates for judicial appointments.

Barbara Babcock was the representative from the Civil Division, but Barbara was overloaded with work. She wanted to delegate that authority to somebody else, and she chose me. So, I’m the one who was her delegate at these various meetings.

And through that process, I saw the way that the hierarchy regarded Ruth Ginsburg, who had not yet made it to the federal bench. She was still in New York teaching at Rutgers. She had applied for, I think, a judicial position on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. You might correct me if I’m wrong, but I think she had been turned down for that, and had not yet put in an application to come to the DC Circuit, and that was sort of being considered, that was kind of in the air.

In addition to that, I worked a candidate who, entirely through my efforts actually, made it to the Court of Appeals. She served in Oklahoma. She made it to the Court of Appeals because of some research that I did.

JW:  What was her name?

NS:  Her name was Stephanie Seymour. The point here, I guess, is that even though I was technically working in the Environment Division, I had been given this authority by Barbara Babcock and the Civil Division to work on women’s rights issues. There were very interesting, and some kind of sad stories, associated with that.

There was one female candidate who was a very prominent lawyer, very successful lawyer in New Orleans, and she had the backing of a representative of one of the labor unions for a seat on the Court of Appeals. But I knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere because of her age. The Carter administration, understandably wanted to appoint people, including women, who were going to be on the bench for a while. I can’t remember what we considered too old, but we really couldn’t move ahead with her appointment and she was very broken up about it, as was the person who was pushing her on behalf of the labor union.

JW:  Were there other guidelines? I mean, age? I understand why they wanted younger people, but I wondered if there were other guidelines that the public doesn’t know about.

NS:  There were no guidelines. This was all seat of the pants.

JW:  Oh, that’s not so good either.

NS:  I don’t know that it wasn’t. I mean, what my job was, was to find out who the candidates were, the female candidates, for these seats. Maybe even to scout one up myself, somebody who hadn’t even thought of it, and to find out about this woman’s qualification. And then, this was really the most important part of it, to call the people out in the field who knew this candidate, and to find out what they thought of her as a possible candidate. Then, I would write up my findings and present them to the deputy attorney general.

Ultimately, I wrote a letter recommending in this case, Stephanie Seymour. I wrote a memo to Griffin Bell, who was the attorney general and on the basis of that letter, he decided to choose Stephanie Seymour, as opposed to a male candidate who was actually being pushed very hard by the deputy attorney general. I remember the deputy attorney general said to me at one of these meetings, “Well, you won one, Nancy. You won one.”

JW:  Were there ideological questions, as we know there are now?

NS:  I was making up the questions as I went along, and I was not asking ideological questions, particularly, except that I was looking for women who might be committed at some level to women’s rights. Stephanie Seymour, as I recall, had no background in women’s rights.

There was another interesting example that I encountered during that project, and it was that there was a woman who was being pushed for, I think it was the federal trial court, by somebody who worked at Hallmark Cards in Missouri and I think she also worked at Hallmark Cards. She had a male mentor, a very respectable guy, who was pushing her candidacy for a judgeship. I was working on this pretty successfully, and then all of a sudden, there arose a burst of opposition to her based upon her supposed liberalism.

It was from a group of women who were opposed to her nomination. They were quite conservative, and they managed to gin up a lot of opposition. And so, we were never able to get to move her nomination forward. Looking back, even at the time, I thought, “Why are they opposing this woman?” It seemed so odd, because she was a very competent, respectable, kind of upper-class woman, who had had no association with political issues, except that she was on the board of the local ACLU -but that was it.

There was no evidence of her taking up liberal causes in any way. And yet, that was the basis on which this group attacked her. I came to the conclusion that they attacked her because she was not one of them. She already had it all. She was an upper middle-class woman who had a good income. She was married to a man who had a good income. I think it was driven by envy, the opposition to her candidacy. At least that’s what I thought.

We’re talking about a very compressed time period. 1970 through maybe 1977, by the time my law firm dissolved. But during this period, and while I was still in law school, I had contact with a group called Human Rights for Women. And Human Rights for Women was a spin off from the National Organization for Women, and it too was kind of an underground organization. Human Rights for Women were a group of about four women who were employed in various contexts, who made it their business to take employment discrimination cases on behalf of women.

They filed briefs, either as amicus curiae, or they were representing the plaintiff in some of the early BFOQ cases. The cases in which the argument was that an employer practice that discriminated against women was lawful because it represented a bona fide occupational qualification for the job. And those BFOQs were challenged in early cases. Rosenfeld vs. Southern Pacific was an early one. And this group, Human Rights for Women, was submitting briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs in those cases.

The briefs were actually being written by Mary Eastwood, a lawyer working for the deputy attorney general. It was Rehnquist at the time, at the department of justice. And in her spare time, she was writing these briefs. She couldn’t sign them because she was working for the department of justice, and so, one of the other women signed the brief and submitted the brief and made the court appearance. All of this was women who were juggling their regular day jobs with their real interest behind the scenes in women’s rights. So that was very interesting.

JW:  I have another question on the judges. Did the nominees have to be Democrats?

NS:  I don’t remember ever asking a nominee if she was a Democrat. I sort of knew the kind of person I was looking for. I was looking for somebody who was, a) supremely qualified to be a judge, extremely competent. And b) for somebody who was kind of involved in social issues at some level. I don’t remember ever asking anybody. I didn’t have a set of questions. “Are you a Democrat?”

JW:  I was just asking because it’s so different now. And of course, I have interviewed people from the National Women’s Political Caucus, which was bipartisan. So, in those days, there are a lot of women from both parties who work together on the issues they cared about. We’ve changed in the last 50 years. Hopefully, someday we’ll get back to that.

NS:  Can I give you one more vignette?

JW:  Oh, please, yes.

NS:  While I was working for Bella Abzug, and again, this was a very compressed time period. This was like six months. Bella, Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem started the National Women’s Political Caucus. I remember them holding a meeting in a committee room. I went to this meeting, and I remember, this is again, a vignette, Gloria Steinem talking to a group of people, and off in the distance, Betty Freidan entered the committee room, and she just drove herself towards Gloria Steinem. She kind of made a path for herself to the side of Gloria Steinem because everybody wanted to be associated with Gloria Steinem.

JW:  Did they agree on what the caucus should be about?

NS:  I don’t remember any disagreement.

JW:  Where did you go after the Justice Department?

NS:  I went to the Federal Communications Commission, against whom I had filed this lawsuit many years earlier. I had kind of a dull and boring job at the FCC, but I had a child. It was a pretty good income. My colleagues were wonderful, and I stayed there for a while, and then subsequently, I went to work for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC. Circuit. I became their mediator, and I held that job for about 20 years.

JW:  Did you continue to be involved as an activist in other ways through those years?

NS:  I really didn’t, because I was working for the federal government, and there was a prohibition against our being engaged in outside activity. I remember during this period, there was a march in Washington. It might have been a pro-abortion march, I don’t remember. And I remember Judge Pat Wald, who was on the Court of Appeals, sending out a memo reminding us that we could not attend, and she was absolutely right. Though I was not a judge, my position was such that I could influence what happened to a case once it was filed in the DC. Circuit, so it was especially important that I not be identified with any political movement.

JW: You could influence it procedurally? Who was that assigned to? That sort of thing?

NS:  No, not who it got assigned to, but it was my job to pluck cases from the Court of Appeals docket and to decide whether or not they should be referred to mediation. And sometimes, the lawyers representing one side or the other were very much opposed to the case being referred to mediation for one reason or another.

There were different rules for the District Court and the Court of Appeals. But in the District Court, although my office tried to discourage this, sometimes, if the District Judge referred a case to mediation, he or she would suspend the progress of the case through the normal channels, so everything would stop while the case was in mediation. And that was sometimes something that the lawyers didn’t want to have happen.

So, in the Court of Appeals, as I recall, nothing stopped its way on the docket. But at any rate, it was sort of this position that I had. And also, the lawyers sometimes thought, especially in the District Court, that I had tremendous influence over the District Court Judge, which was not the case, but sometimes they thought that.

JW:  Well, you were a known commodity in this world, apparently. People knew who you were.

NS:  Yes. That was a wonderful job, actually.

JW:  And you retired after that?

NS:  I did. I was there for about 20 years, and then I retired. Since then, my activist activities have been limited to sending money and writing postcards to turn up Democratic vote.

JW:  How would you say your involvement in the ‘70s, in the Second Wave, affected your personality? We hear how it affected you professionally, but how did it affect your private life?

NS:  Answering that takes a little delving into my emotional state at the time. I had just graduated from law school or was about to graduate from law school. I had no idea what I was going to do professionally with this law degree. I had no mentors, and I was floundering, really. Getting involved with the women’s movement saved my life because it gave me a purpose. It gave me camaraderie with other women, and it was a righteous exercise.

I think of all those things when I think of all these folks who are upset with the government today. The MAGA folks, I think part of the appeal, especially among white guys without a college education, is that they band together. It gives them a sense of comradeship. They certainly feel righteous. It gives them purpose, and everybody needs purpose.

 What the women’s movement did for me back then, was it gave me purpose. And it was a lot of fun. Working for Bella Abzug, apart from the fact that it was stressful, it was fun, actually. I worked for her half time, as did Judy Wolf. We split the job. I took the women’s rights half of it, and Judy did all the rest. She was another lawyer in town, so we split this one legislative assistant slot. Both of us worked far more than 40 hours a week, of course. That’s the way it was. But a lot of excitement happened.

There was a march on Washington during the period that Judy and I were there. And I remember we marched to the RFK Stadium. We didn’t march, we went there. Bella wanted to go there. Once the police started to round people off and incarcerate them in the stadium, Bella wanted to go there. So, Bella and Judy and I did go there. And we went into the enclosure and mingled, and we spirited out Judy’s sister, who had gotten caught up in this mob.

There’s actually some film out there that shows me marching to the enclosure behind Bella, and there are anecdotes about Bella. She wanted to view the march, she wanted to be close to it. And we somehow got the weatherman, who flew a helicopter over the city, he agreed to take Bella to the site of the enclosure where people were being rounded up. So, she got into the helicopter and the helicopter went up, and then the helicopter came. She was frightened. She had a fear of flying. So, Judy went home and got her van and that’s how Bella got to the site of the demonstration.

 But let me add this in terms of its impact on my later life, I suppose it made me feel a sense of responsibility and commitment to public affairs. I’m frustrated right now because I feel helpless, as if there isn’t much that I can do. Back then, I didn’t feel helpless. I mean, who could have predicted what we’re facing today? Nobody. But it certainly gave me a sense of purpose and a sense of power and authority. Getting the dean to establish this class on women’s rights, I was kind of a timid law student. And doing that, doing all these things, gave one a sense of power.

I want to say one more thing about Mary Catherine Kilday, who was the woman at WRC-TV who was absolutely stalwart, and who rallied her friends or other women employees at that station, to file the complaint with the EEOC, the complaint of discrimination. She’s a good example of somebody who is kind of unsung and unknown, but she started the ball rolling, challenging employment practices at the local television station. She’s gone now, but she was a good buddy and a good friend.