THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Women have a fundamental right to control their own bodies.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, December 2022
NS: My full name is Nancy Stearns. I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1939.
JW: Can you tell us a little about your childhood and what kind of influences there were that led you to be who you are? Siblings? Parents?
NS: I have one sister. My father was an immigrant. He came to the United States from Eastern Europe when he was six years old. As a result of which, he was pretty much a super American because he was so grateful to be here. My mother was born in the United States.
Before I was born, my mother worked for Filene’s Department Store as a buyer. I think she very much missed her career, and she ended up leaving her career when I was born because it was the beginning of World War II. My father enlisted in the Navy and I think it was very hard for my mother to have given up that independence, and the role she was able to play as a buyer. She traveled back and forth to New York because that’s part of what buyers did.
My sister was older than me, but I think both the fact that my father was an immigrant, and very much a proud American citizen when he became an American citizen, and that my mother had had a career until I was born, probably had a big impact on who I became later.
JW: I’m just curious where in Boston area you were?
JW: So, when did you finally become conscious of women’s issues?
NS: Well, I went from college to graduate school, and in graduate school I met people from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I went to Berkeley and I was in political science at that point. A friend of mine in the Bay Area who was involved in doing some of the fundraising for SNCC, decided he would drive south the summer after my second year of graduate school and I went with him. I thought I was going for the summer, but I stayed.
JW: What year was that?
NS: The summer of 1963 through the summer of 1964. My second summer there, was the Freedom Summer, and that had a huge impact on me in every way.
JW: Tell me how.
NS: Well, first of all, it enabled me to become part of a movement. And to know how it felt to become part of a movement. To do something that was much larger than myself that was quite important for our country. And also, because I learned from kind of the inside, about fighting for your rights in a way that I would not have before. And, like the other women in the movement, I felt the way women were treated in the movement. I mean, there have been books written about it. All of that.
I did not have the courage to do voter registration in the Black community. I just didn’t. I did office work in Atlanta, but that was needed, too. And while I was in the South, I concluded that if I really wanted to make any kind of serious contribution beyond doing office work, I needed a skill. And the appropriate skill for me seemed to be law. So, I went to law school. All those things impacted me.
JW: Before we get to the law school, when you said books have been written about how women are treated, can you give me a couple of sentences about that?
NS: I was not one of the people involved in any of the books, and I hate to admit it, I cannot remember the title. But a group of women who were in the movement wrote about their experiences, and I could just see it. I mean, women weren’t taken as seriously. The men were threatened by women in any kind of a leadership role. There were a few women in leadership roles, but that was hard. And that was one of the reasons I felt I really needed to get a skill.
JW: Where did you go to law school?
NS: I went to NYU Law School.
JW: And when you got out, what did you do?
NS: My first job when I got out of law school, I used to joke and say I was the community property of two lawsuits, challenging the constitutionality of subpoenas of the House on American Activities Committee. It made a great deal of sense in many ways that that was my first job, because when I was a kid, we got our first television set so that my mother could watch the Army-McCarthy hearings. So, that meant a lot to me.
One of the major lawyers on those cases was somebody I had met in the south who became my mentor really, and that was Arthur Kinoy. He had developed a theory, that merely a subpoena, or merely an indictment in the south, could have a chilling effect on a person’s ability to exercise their First Amendment rights. And the work I did when I was working on those two cases, I really did more factual than legal work.
I went and met with lawyers and witnesses who had been before HUAC trying to show what had happened to them merely because they had gone and taken the Fifth Amendment or taken the First Amendment but refused to testify before the committee. And that even if you exercised your constitutional right to take the Fifth Amendment, you would lose your job. All kinds of things would happen to you. I put together the factual appendix to support the legal theory.
JW: Then how did you get involved in women’s issues?
NS: I was lucky enough after that first job to ultimately get hired by the newly formed Center for Constitutional Rights. So, I had a base. I got there before Jan Goodman got there because I was a couple of years ahead of Jan in law school. While I had been in law school, I remember reading a law review article. I believe it was written by an incredible lawyer named Harriet Pilpel, about how and why abortion laws violated women’s constitutional rights, and it stuck with me. I got hired by the Center, I think, maybe February or March of 1969.
That summer, I happened to meet some women who worked for Health PAC. And I remember talking to one of the women about abortion and about the fact that I thought the abortion laws were unconstitutional. I don’t remember much more about the conversation at that point, but she told me that the women from Health PAC had been meeting together.
They were meeting in the evenings and would I like to come and meet with them? So, I said, “Sure.” I got to know several of them, and they had been talking about abortion from the women’s health care perspective. And we, you know, I can’t remember exactly how it all happened, but the upshot of all of that was we decided to have meetings around the city, meeting with groups of women to talk about abortion as a women’s health issue.
I would talk about legal aspects. One of the doctors, June Finer, would talk about the medical aspects, and another woman would talk about sort of the political aspects. And then we would ask women if they wanted to talk about it. Talk about their experiences with the healthcare system in general, and with doctors, most of whom of course, were men. If they had had abortions, or wanted to have abortions, or hadn’t been able to have abortions, if they wanted to talk about that. And we did that all around the city.
Ultimately by then, I was convinced we should do a lawsuit. And the Health PAC women were excited about the idea, and we asked them if they wanted to be part of a lawsuit and when they wanted to challenge New York’s law, and we got large numbers of women. I had been invited to join a consciousness raising group, which I had done, but I discovered that I was a total failure. I was fascinated by what people said, but I was not able to talk about myself at all. So, I failed consciousness raising. I did not fail talking to women about an issue of concern to them and concern to me.
JW: I was amazed that all these women would talk about it. I mean, that period in history was very shameful and hush hush. And yet, they would talk to you, and you had quite a crowd sign up, right?
NS: They would talk in small groups. Not everybody would talk about abortion. I mean, everybody was willing to talk about abortion as an issue, talk about their anger at the healthcare system. And some few people talked, because not all of the women we met with had had abortions, or had needed to have abortions. Probably, my guess is that all of them had been through a scare at one point or another, as had I.
I mean, what woman at that point hadn’t had a scare? So, people could talk about a variety of things without necessarily talking about whether they had had an illegal abortion, and it took a while to gather the women. Basically, I got involved with the women’s movement, not by becoming involved with an already existing large women’s organization, but rather this other way through an issue.
JW: And so, you did decide to do a lawsuit?
NS: Right. And I was lucky that I was at the Center, because they were able to finance the lawsuit, and they were willing to. That was what was important, because as shocking as it feels when I go back and think about it, there had never at that point been a lawsuit that I am aware of, by women, raising the issue from women’s perspectives, in the court.
There had been other challenges to abortion laws, but they had all been by either doctors or abortion counselors who were being prosecuted or threatened with prosecution. And they were all, from the perspective of a criminal defendant speaking for women, not women speaking themselves. And just the timing of it. When we brought the lawsuit, we did it with three categories. We did it with women, we did it with doctors, and we did it with abortion counselors.
But just as luck would have it, it’s kind of like when you read about simultaneous scientific discoveries; At roughly the same time, a group of doctors were about to challenge. Several doctors, abortion counselors that were clergy, were about to challenge, and a poor people’s lawsuit was about to be filed, and we all ended up filing in federal court at roughly the same time.
JW: When was that?
NS: It was the fall of 1969. Which gave us the ability to, although we kept those other categories of plaintiffs, basically to just deal with our part of the consolidated cases from the women’s perspective. And what we were trying to do, really, was make the case for women. The one thing we also did, is we did have a rabbi as a witness, to talk about the fact that Judaism, unlike some other religions, did not say that it was wrong to have an abortion and in fact, in many circumstances, supports abortion.
JW: How many women did you have as plaintiffs?
NS: We had about 350 by the time we filed. But I will say that was a small number. Our lawsuit was never decided because New York’s law was changed by the legislature right about six months later. I did the same thing in New Jersey with a couple of women lawyers, we had maybe 800 or 900. I did the same thing in Connecticut, ironically, with one of the lawyers in our team there.
It was a woman I had met when I had worked in the south and who I then had interviewed when I was doing the HUAC case, because she had represented people in front of HUAC and the McCarthy committee. That was a phenomenal woman, and was one of the lawyers on Griswold vs Connecticut, which struck down the laws prohibiting birth control.
Her name was Catherine Roraback. Katie was fabulous. I knew Katie, and I knew she was the perfect person for Connecticut. She involved some other younger women lawyers. They initially started with 1000 plaintiffs because they were already organizing women. I think I hadn’t realized this, but I think we ended up adding more, and maybe there were several thousand.
There was also a lawsuit in Rhode Island. Needless to say, tiny Rhode Island didn’t have that many plaintiffs, but we did the same thing again in Rhode Island. So, even though the New York lawsuit ended because the law changed, we used the same theories and were able to go from court to court, really educating all of these male judges, because we did not have a single woman judge.
JW: What was the outcome of those cases?
NS: In all of the cases, the laws got struck down. In both Connecticut and Rhode Island, the laws got struck down. The legislatures were reconvened. There were preambles put in, saying that this was to protect the life of a fetus from the moment of conception. And the laws got struck down again. But the important thing was these cases and their theories were cited in Roe vs Wade. Roe vs Wade was filed after us.
JW: I have a couple of questions about the case. So, one, I want to ask you about your team and then about the theories of the case.
JW: Who else was on your team?
NS: In New York, we had all women lawyers. In New Jersey we had all women lawyers. In Connecticut we had all women lawyers. In Rhode Island, there was a man, because there weren’t enough women lawyers in Rhode Island. But we basically had teams of women doing all of this. And I will say, at least initially in New York, the male lawyers kind of looked askance at us.
JW: Tell me about the theory of the case.
NS: There were several theories, but one of the main theories we were developing was that the constitution protected our right to liberty. And that not being able to control your reproductive life, basically deprived you of liberty under the constitution, and deprived you of equal protection of the laws under the constitution. Partially because, if you looked at – and here, the liberty and the equal protection sort of fit together – if you looked at the way in which women’s lives were constrained, women were not ultimately able to function as an equal member of the society.
And you could see, for example, as a result, women were not part of legislators that made the laws. Women were not judges who ruled on the constitutionality of the laws. Women were deprived of that kind of role that then enacted the laws that kept us there, basically. So that it was a complicated kind of equal protection theory that women understood, that men didn’t.
The other part of it really, was that although men and women played an equal role in creating the pregnancy, only the woman was punished. The women had to go through the nine months of pregnancy. The woman had to risk her own health and life. Men could and did walk away, and still do, obviously. But on that level, also, the extent to which an unwanted pregnancy is a punishment, a wanted pregnancy clearly is not a punishment.
There are problems and there are risks, but it’s not a punishment. But an unwanted pregnancy is. And the extent to which a woman had to go through that against her will, men could just up and walk away. And so that was a denial of equal protection.
Women lost jobs because of being pregnant, all of those things. That was a liberty issue. That was an equal protection issue because men did not lose jobs when they helped create the pregnancy. We knew, obviously, that safer argument would be the right to privacy. So, we argued that as well, because it is right to privacy.
JW: Mainly because that was precedent already in Griswold.
NS: That’s right. Exactly. Thank you, Katie Roraback and her counsel in Connecticut. That was supreme court precedent from not that many years earlier. It was only a handful of years earlier. And then we also argued, and I felt very strongly about this, and still do, to this day. It’s still what really, really bothers me. We argued then, that it was not merely a violation of the free exercise of women whose religion supported them having an abortion under many circumstances, but for me, even more important, it is a violation of the very first part of the First Amendment which says, Congress shall make no law which establishes religion.
And that’s what it is. That’s what restrictive abortion laws are. They are enacting a religious belief into law, enforcing it on women who don’t believe it, forcing it on women, some of whom are of that religion, but are prepared to have an abortion. And I feel very strongly about that, and I’m still trying to get people to make that argument now.
There are a lot of lawsuits now on the free exercise aspect, and some of them are winning, which is good, but I don’t want to see a situation where only religious women can get abortions. You should not have to say that my religious belief gives me an exception. Anyway, so those were our legal theories. And, that it’s cruel and unusual punishment to force a woman into nine months of pregnancy and the dangers, et cetera, against her will.
JW: Now, you did confer with Sarah Weddington, the lawyer in Roe, correct?
NS: Yes, I sent her my papers. I mean, she got in touch with me, and I sent her my papers from the very beginning. So, she had all of our legal theories and I talked to her. I certainly was nothing like a Co-council to her, but we talked, we consulted, and I also sent my papers to the women in Georgia in Doe vs Bolton with the ACLU in Georgia. I think they have ended up with the three categories of plaintiffs like we did, but I think they really concentrated on whoever Doe was. There weren’t that many women lawyers then. They found me with no problem.
JW: Was there an amicus brief? And you should explain what that is for our audience. There was an amicus brief with your theories in the book?
NS: Yes, I wrote it. An amicus brief is a friend of the court brief. People file them on all levels of the court. On the trial court level, the appellate court level, and in the Supreme Court. And it is individuals or organizations that have a view and usually some sort of stake in the issues, and want to educate the court on the larger issues that are before the court. And, yes, all of those theories were presented to the Supreme Court.
JW: So, Roe, people talk about it obviously as women got the right to abortions. However, I know that you know, when you read it carefully, it basically says the doctor has the authority to do an abortion at least in the first trimester, and then other discussions after that. So, I just find it very interesting, really, that you were thinking of the women. But even it’s fabulous decision, really didn’t talk about women, it talked about the doctor.
NS: Well, it did talk about women. In talking about the impact on a woman’s right to liberty, it was talking about women. And frankly, I think it got that from comparable discussion in our Connecticut case. So, I really felt that all the work we did, basically educating the judges about what the real-world impact of abortion laws, of restricting abortion, has on women, made it through to that decision.
JW: So, maybe it wouldn’t have been decided even the way with doctors if they hadn’t really understood how serious the impact was.
NS: I feel pretty sure of that.
JW: And so, when New York or the other states changed law, it was really fabulous, but then you didn’t have any more cases to bring.
NS: Well, my last one of the abortion cases was the Rhode Island one. I think the New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island may have been somewhat simultaneous. It was all happening at roughly the same time. Because if you figure New York changed its law in 1970, the other cases were filed in either ’70, ’71. I’d have to look at the docket numbers to know, and Roe wasn’t decided until ‘73. So, we were doing that litigation during that time. And then I stayed marginally involved in abortion litigation.
One of the other women who was at the Center for Constitutional Rights, not when I first got hired, because when I first got hired, she was still in law school. But Rhonda Copeland did work on Medicaid abortion issues, and I worked with Rhonda somewhat on that, but truth be told, I got to the point where I was so angry at the anti-abortion lawyers on the other side, that I realized I had to pass the torch.
I just was way too angry. I found myself, and it was actually Rhonda’s case in the Eastern District of New York, I found myself in the hall literally screaming at one of the lawyers, basically saying, “You just hate women,” which I think he did. But I thought, oh, that’s telling me something.
There are other wonderful women who are now doing this litigation, it does not need to be me. I will do other work. I was doing a huge amount of other unrelated work anyway, on women’s issues and anti-war issues. The beauty of being at the Center for Constitutional Rights was that we worked with many movements. And so, I was doing a variety of different kind of litigation, and it wasn’t like I didn’t feel like I could make a contribution when I said, “These other younger women can carry the torch.”
JW: I want to talk about what else you did in the years after, but I do want to just bring it up to date with the Dobbs case. Of course, Dobbs overturned Roe, and I wonder if you think if your theories had been a more central part of Roe, if that might have helped keep it intact.
NS: Well, it’s funny, because I just wrote and delivered a very long speech at Notre Dame Law School. Several women law students there had heard an interview with me on The Daily, the New York Times podcast, and decided that they wanted to do a symposium on Dobbs and they asked me to be the keynote speaker. So, I’ve written a very long speech about all of that, and my conclusion is it would not have made one wit of difference because legal theory had nothing to do with that decision.
And if you read the dissent, you’ll basically see that they said the same thing. The dissent in Dobbs, basically said, “Why did they reverse Roe v. Wade?” They reversed Roe v. Wade because they hated it. I can’t remember whether they said hated or despised or used another synonym. And they now had the votes to do it because the Republicans have systematically appointed anti Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion justices. And it wouldn’t have made one wit of difference what legal theory had been used. That’s my conclusion.
JW: I agree. It’s very sad, but I agree this was political.
NS: I don’t know whether or not you’re a Linda Greenhouse fan.
JW: I am. I am, definitely.
NS: Well, right after the Dobbs decision was leaked, before it actually came down, she wrote an article. The headline was something like, Dobbs is about Religion. And she starts it by saying, “When new decisions come down, I put them in my files, and I organized them, and I was trying to decide what I should file Dobbs under? And should it be equal protection, should it be liberty, should it be privacy? And I thought,” says Linda Greenhouse, “No, this is all about religion. That’s what this case is about.” And I agree with her.
It’s about the religion of those six people, partially because there’s a lot of ways you can look at the decision and say it. But the legal theories are totally bogus as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be glad to send you the speech. I’m very happy with it, I worked very hard on the speech. And some of it I just quoted the dissent because they can say it better than I can, and they are supreme court justices, but they talk about how the majority uses the theory that you have to interpret the constitution as it was intended by the people who wrote it.
And they say, “Well, the right to abortion is not mentioned in the constitution or in the 14th amendment,” which is from wence sort of cometh for the right to liberty. But if you notice, neither is the word fetus, and fetuses seem to have rights and women don’t. Anyway, the long and the short of it is, I do not think it would have made one wit of difference what legal theory was used.
JW: I did hear Sarah Weddington’s speech a couple of years ago, again for the audience, she was the lawyer in Roe v. Wade, and somebody in the audience asked the question, “Well, Ruth Ginsburg had this theory about equal protection, 14th amendment, what do you think?” And she said, “I think that’s a great theory, but I won.”
NS: I say Ruth rather than justice Ginsburg because I knew her. I was at NYU when she gave that speech. I didn’t say anything to her in the context of the speech, but I wrote her a long letter discussing things that I think she just didn’t know about the history of abortion litigation. She wasn’t on the court then. She wasn’t really interested in abortion. She was really interested in the equal protection clause and did a brilliant job with it, and didn’t realize, for one thing, that we argued equal protection.
I think if she were alive today and still on the court, we might not have Dobbs, because they wouldn’t have had six. They would have had five to four. But had they had five to four rather than six to three, I don’t even know what Roberts would have done. But if she could read this decision, she would realize they would have done exactly the same thing with equal protection because abortion is not mentioned in the 14th amendment and we would have come up against the pregnant person/non pregnant person kind of thing. I mean, there are many reasons why I think it wouldn’t have mattered, but we interact.
JW: For our audience, do you want to describe that case? What it was? The pregnant person vs. non pregnant.
NS: It’s funny. My recollection is it was in one of the insurance cases and there was a discussion of whether or not you could discriminate against women in Maternity care. And basically, what the court said is, it’s not a denial of equal protection because it’s not sex discrimination. It’s pregnant persons versus non pregnant persons, which is not a sex discrimination issue.
JW: So, what other kinds of things did you go on to do?
NS: Well, one of the things I was doing simultaneously with working on abortion litigation, and immediately in New York, because of course now that we have the right to abortion, the potential ugly head of involuntary sterilization appeared. We were concerned that poor women were going to be given, particularly in city hospitals, might be pressured into agreeing to be sterilized in exchange for getting an abortion.
And a close friend of mine, I think I already knew her, it’s so hard to remember back to when you met people, but a woman who became a very close friend of mine was the head of quality assurance at the New York City Health and Hospital Corporation. And she, with another woman who became a close friend of mine, a physician named Helen Rodriguez Trias.
They together set up a committee to draft regulations to ensure informed consent of women in order to sterilize them. And they asked me to be on that committee. So, I immediately started working on issues relating to sterilization abuse. The regulations that we drafted, ultimately were used in drafting New York state regulations and then finally in federal regulations because it was a real serious problem.
One of the ironic things at that point, was that at the same time women were being pressured into being sterilized – a lot in the south, poor Black women, a lot in Puerto Rico, which is one of the reasons Helen Rodriguez was very interested in it – but middle and upper middle-class women were being denied the right to be sterilized because the doctors thought they were the ones who should decide and not the woman.
I think it was the rule of 120 that sticks in my mind. That your age, times the number of children you had, had to multiply out to 120 to get a sterilization you wanted. We were talking about both the right to make that choice and that women were capable of making that choice, and the right to have the information to not be forced into being sterilized. So, I got involved with sterilization stuff at roughly the same time.
I also was involved with compulsory maternity leave cases. That hadn’t yet been decided by the Supreme Court. And I got involved in a case in New York, Monell versus Department of Social Services. There were three women, two of them were school teachers, and one of them worked for the Department of Social Services. Those cases ultimately got settled in New York because the law was clearly going our way. But before they got settled, we went all the way up to the Supreme Court on legal issues.
Monell has been an incredibly important case with respect to holding municipalities liable for violation of people’s constitutional rights, and it’s been particularly valuable in police brutality cases. You have to be able to show that the violation resulted from an affirmative policy or a failure to train properly, but you had to show it was the thing that violated the rights of whoever it was, was actually municipal policy. That’s been a tremendously important case all across the country and has brought many people whose rights have been violated, damages. We ended up settling the damage part once we won the legal theory that we could hold the city liable.
When I was representing women who were challenging compulsory maternity leave cases, I also represented a man who worked for the Board of Higher Education. He and his wife were both teachers in the SUNY schools. She got pregnant and had a baby, and they decided that she would go back to work and he would do the initial childcare, and SUNY refused to give him parental leave that they would have given her, and we ended up winning.
Ultimately, we won the motion to dismiss, that they couldn’t dismiss us out of court. They ended up settling and changing the policy, so that was good. I did one of those, actually, as Ruth was working her way up to the Supreme Court.
Another area I worked in was rape. New York changed the prior sexual conduct rules. It used to be that a rape victim would be cross examined about her prior sexual conduct, which would often result in rapists getting acquitted. And New York changed the laws on that evidence, and we ended up representing a young woman who brought a rape charge against a guy she knew.
And we ended up, I think, doing an amicus brief on her behalf and working with the district attorney in Queens about that issue. It went up to the New York Court of Appeals, and the statute was upheld, which was really good. It has, I’m sure, made a big difference in the lives of many women who were rape victims.
The one other area, I think you probably talked to Jan about, which was suing ABC TV and NBC TV about discrimination in programming and employment and what they call ascertainment. How they find out people’s views on what they want in TV. I played a much smaller role in that than Jan and the other women that we worked with, but I was involved with that too. I was trying to think of whether there were any other women’s issues I’ve done. There may have been, and I can’t remember, but it’s all 50 years ago or so, give or take.
JW: What did you go on to do after that, then?
NS: Well, a lot of the other stuff I was doing at the same time, I was very involved with anti-war stuff. Those were the days of the, something-or-other five, or the something-or-other eight, or the something-or-other seven, The Chicago Seven. I was involved with the Gainesville Eight, which was eight Vietnam vets who were prosecuted for conspiring to disrupt the Republican National Convention in Florida. I did that, and the grand jury attached to that.
I did some Native American rights work. I did some environmental work at the Center. Just before I left the Center, we represented an organization that was challenging the military for its plans to store nuclear weapons right near one of the flight paths into the Honolulu International Airport. Just little things like that. And if I thought hard, I could come up with other things.
JW: Where did you go after the Center?
NS: It was a good thing I had done the environmental case at the Center because I became a public servant. I went to the New York State Attorney General’s office and went into the Environmental Protection Bureau. I worked there for 14 years. I did some labor environmental stuff at the center before I went to the AG’s office, and in the Environmental Protection Bureau, I also worked on the Workers Right to Know Law, which was a law that had passed in New York requiring employers to educate their workers on toxic chemicals they were exposed to on the job, so that that had an environmental kind of component.
I worked there for 14 years, and a Republican got elected as attorney general and fired a third of the staff and I was fired too, which was good. I didn’t want to quit, but I certainly didn’t want to work for him, but I didn’t have to worry about it.
And this is sort of relevant to this interview, when he got elected, he had his main person go around and talk to all the bureau chiefs and ask about the lawyers. In theory, they were making reasoned decisions about who to keep and who to fire. And the one thing they asked my boss about me was, was I a feminist. And my boss, he did this totally straight face, and he said, “Oh, I really don’t have any idea whether she’s a feminist, but she’s a very good lawyer.” We both laughed a lot at Jim’s response. I mean, Jim knew full well I was a feminist.
JW: Did you keep doing law or did you move on to some other things?
NS: I did interview for a variety of different kinds of jobs, including non-law jobs. At that point, I was 55 years old, and I got a very good lesson about age discrimination. I ended up getting a job at the New York State Supreme Court in the law department, and I have been there ever since. It’s a very different kind of life.
I went to law school to basically do civil rights law of some sort, to do political work. I’m lucky enough to have met Arthur Kinoy when I was in the south just as he and three other men were forming the Center for Constitutional Rights. I was at the right place at the right time and was a very lucky person.
JW: I need to ask you about your singing career. When did you start singing professionally?
NS: It’s funny because I still don’t think of it as professionally, although I did make money doing it. I probably didn’t break even, but I did make money. I’ve always loved to sing, and for a birthday present one summer, a very close friend of mine gave me a singing lesson with a friend of hers, who was a wonderful voice teacher. After that, I joined a chorus at the 92nd Street Y, which is the Jewish Y in New York.
They had a chorus at that point called, Broadway at 92Y. And when I read about it, I thought, I can’t face myself if I don’t try to get into that because I love to sing. I always complain that I don’t sing. So, I got into the Broadway at 92Y Chorus and I did that for a couple of years. I took some lessons with this teacher, and she said she thought I might enjoy cabaret.
I didn’t think much about it, and my very first day when I went to work at the court, I met somebody who became a very close friend, and he had taken a cabaret class. He’s a phenomenal singer, actually, and he told me that he had a dream that I had been singing in a cabaret with a piano and a bass. He didn’t know whether I liked singing, he didn’t know whether I could sing, but he had this dream.
I heard him sing, and I heard the show he did with the class and then he did his own show. I decided to take the class with his teacher, who became a very close friend and who ultimately, several years later, I volunteered to be her administrator. So, I got deeply involved in cabaret and loved it.
What I found, sort of related to what I discovered about myself, not so much as a lawyer but as a speaker. Because one of the things we missed in our talking chronologically is in the early years as I was a lawyer, it was actually Jan Goodman, who you have interviewed, at NYU – I knew Jan, and she organized with some other women the very first Women in the Law conference at a law school.
And I ended up doing a huge amount of speaking in those early years because there were conferences all over the country, regional conferences, national conferences. And I was one of the few young women lawyers doing women’s rights law. So, I spoke at them constantly. And what I discovered, was that I could move people. And that’s what I found with singing, too. I have a perfectly acceptable singing voice, but there were people who I took class with who had way better singing voices than I did, and some really had magnificent instruments.
I used the shows that I did to say something, and that was why I kept doing it. I discovered as a result of this, that the Rosie the Riveter original poster is in the public domain so I was able to use it. I didn’t know that. I was ready to research to find out how I could get permission to use it but it’s in the public domain. My last show was called Women’s Lives, and the songs were about women’s lives in many aspects. I recorded a lot of my other shows because I put so much work into them that I actually made CDs. One was called The Words of Women and all the songs were with women lyricists. Women’s Lives isn’t necessarily women songwriters, and so I have the Words of Women as a CD.
JW: Well, it sounds to me, like women’s issues and concerns have affected you throughout your whole career. Do you want to say what it meant to you to be involved in women’s issues all these years?
NS: I don’t know how to say it. I’d have to think very hard to say something meaningful. I will tell you, being involved in all sorts of civil rights issues and being involved in all sorts of really important political causes, like the anti-war movement. I consider myself one of the lucky people in the world to have been born when I was, and to have been able to experience being part of a movement, of several movements, but being part of movements larger than myself, and therefore thinking about issues larger than myself.
Had my mother had the advantages I had when she was growing up, she would have been a lawyer in my mind, but her family was poor. The idea of law school when she was growing up, forget it. But when I went to law school, she was clearly envious. I was well aware of how hard it was for her to have given up her career when I was born. I was older when I became aware, but I became aware of it.
The other thing I did is I taught Women in the Law at Rutgers for at least ten years, twelve years, maybe. When Ruth Ginsburg left Rutgers, I picked up her course. It’s another reason I knew her, and she was really supportive and helpful, but I taught at Rutgers for years. Then, I taught Women in the Law one summer, really, so that I would see my parents more. I taught a seminar at Northeastern and I commuted to Northeastern once a week.
I took a sabbatical at the Center. We got very little money, and they developed a sabbatical program as a perk and I got the first sabbatical. I taught at the University of Hawaii Law School, which was really cool because it was half women, and I was the only woman faculty member at that point.
JW: Let me ask you if you have any closing thoughts.
NS: Well, in a way, it’s what I said, really to the women, but to the students at Notre Dame a month ago. And that is, these fights are not over. It’s going to be the young women, the young women lawyers, the young women activists. It’s their lives, and it’s their struggle, and I think they can do it. And they will feel so good about themselves in the struggle.