THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I picked Antioch College because it was Academically Excellent and it was a Hotbed of Free Love and Communism.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, October 2022
JW: This is Judy Waxman in DC. It’s October 11, 2022, and I’m here with Sylvia Law. We start, Sylvia, with asking you your full name and when and where you were born.
SL: Sylvia A. Law. I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. May 29,1942. So, I just turned 80.
JW: Tell us briefly what your early life was like and maybe what led you to the path that you wound up being on.
SL: Well, I grew up in Minnesota, the Dakotas in Montana. I was, and still am, seriously dyslexic, and so I didn’t do too well. I couldn’t add or spell, but I could read. And anyway, I grew up in that environment. Obviously all White, rural, but I was also very active in the Methodist Church and was the statewide chair of outreach, which meant services to African nations.
So, I got an internationalist perspective. And also, it was a lot of service to poor people. I spent a summer working with Black Feet Indians, helping them to build a basketball court. I was just drawn to social justice issues. My family wasn’t particularly political or drawn in that way, but it just seemed like fun and exciting work, and working with good people. I was the Montana State representative to the White House Conference on Children and Youth in 1959. That was the first time I ever got east of Minneapolis, and that was eye opening.
That was really my first introduction to the racial issues that so dominate our culture, and also to different forms of economic justice issues. I won a National Merit Scholarship despite my dyslexia, and I wasn’t considering going to college, but you get a full freight scholarship, you go to the college library and read all the catalogs. I knew I wanted to go east.
I wanted to go someplace not too small and not too big, not religious. And I picked Antioch, largely on the basis of the fact that their catalog had a lot of good pictures. And that was a very good choice for me because Antioch, at that time, was both academically excellent, and also known in academic circles as a hotbed of free love and communism. So, it worked for me.
JW: You went to law school, right? Which women didn’t do so much then.
SL: Yes. I didn’t want to go to law school. I wanted to be a community organizer in poor communities. I tried to get those jobs, and people kept asking me how fast I could type. I could type just fine, but I realized I needed better credentials if I wanted to get a job doing poor people’s work and racial work. I went to NYU Law, and I was very involved. My biggest commitment was to the National Welfare Rights Organization and to work at Mobilization for Youth.
I did well academically, but my real passion was for the racial justice work. When I graduated, I got a Reginald Heber Smith Scholarship. I wanted to go to a rural community, but they sent me to the Center on Welfare Rights. I think because my grades were good. The center had a temporary guy who was a director for a few years but who wasn’t really a civil rights guy, who was a guy from a firm, and he liked my grades. But that was good. I went to the Welfare Law Center. It wasn’t working directly with clients, but I did work on Goldberg v. Kelly, Rosado v. Wyman.
JW: Explain those a little for our audience.
SL: Goldberg v. Kelly is both Justice Brennan and my favorite Supreme Court case ever. It was the first case that held, that if Congress says something is an entitlement and you’ve been found eligible for it, they can’t take it away without telling you the reasons and giving you an opportunity to explain that they’re making a mistake. The importance of that concept, not just for poor people but for everyone. There’s a reason that Justice Brennan and I think it’s the best decision ever, and it’s still the law, I think, mostly.
JW: How many women were in your class, and then did you work with women at the Welfare Rights Organization?
SL: So, here’s the story about the women in my class. We were 7%, and at the end of the first year, they used to post the list of students in order of the grades they had received, and seven of the top ten grade getters were women. I’m standing there reading this list, and I was on that list, and the director of Admissions was standing there waiting for the elevator with me, and I said, “Wow, the girls did good.”
And he said, “Sylvia, it’s bad news for the girls because you and I know, that those girls are not going to go off and work, make big bucks, and give money to the school.” And this is the punchline, I said to him, “Jim, you’re absolutely right.” Because I knew those girls and that’s not what they were going to do.
JW: I mean, obviously you were helping a lot of women at the welfare reform. Those were most of the clients, I assume, right?
SL: Yes, right.
JW: Can you speak about that a little?
SL: Well, that was wonderful. I worked at MFY, and I became close with Ed Sparer, who founded Legal Services and MFY, and was a real pathbreaking person in that field. Had founded the center for Welfare Rights, but then had left there to go to Yale. Yes, I worked with those women. I loved those women. I was so upset this summer when the movie Soul City came out. I was working with poor women from Harlem, mostly women of color, and I never knew about that. I was so hurt because my clients could have told me. And my clients were mostly my age or younger.
One thing I recall from that period is, they just feel so badly for me that I don’t have children. And they would say, “You’re missing the best part.” And 20 years later, I figured that out. But anyway, I loved working for an organized client. You’ll remember that in those days, we had community organizers, who had a whole expertise and skill set, that the lawyers lacked.
And the community organizers both organized people, and also educated the lawyers, on how we should relate to our clients. And that’s a very rare situation now where a lawyer has a functioning, real, on the ground, movement of people, that they can look to for guidance, about what you want to do with an issue.
JW: Were there other women lawyers with you?
SL: Nancy Duff, Campbell Levy. Duffy was a woman. There were a few others, but she worked because she worked at the center, and we all did poverty work. There was an active Civil Rights Research Council chapter. I was a leader of that. Most of the people I worked with as a law student were guys. Ronnie Pollock and Alan Houseman were my two best friends in that class. David Rudowski, so we were a very strong group of Civil Rights oriented people. Norman Siegel, but mostly guys.
There were a handful of women, but in the Civil Rights Movement and in general, my political and organizing work, the clients were all women, but I was in no way a feminist. Well, I wasn’t anti-feminist, but I thought the issues that they were fighting for, like getting into the men’s clubs and the men’s bars and stuff, I just thought that was not as important as the work I was doing. I was a poor people’s lawyer.
JW: What did you do when you left that job?
SL: I left that job because after the year of working insanely hard, I was just exhausted. I broke up with my boyfriend of many years, and I just needed a rest. My friend Norman Doersom had a friend who was then the dean of the London School of Economics law school. In the British system, the position of dean rotates amongst the senior tenured faculty. So, John Griffiths was dean because it was his turn.
I go there, and he was an incredibly progressive guy, and we loved each other. He would come up with these crazy proposals and consult with me, we would perfect them and present them to the faculty, and then the vote would be me and John against everybody else on the faculty. But it was a fun year. It was a year off, teaching contracts, torts, and criminal law to British law students.
JW: That’s interesting, because their law isn’t exactly the same as ours, right?
SL: Oh, it’s not. And the names of all the cases are different. And so, you teach Palsgraf, for example, but it’s a different name and different facts. Same principles, it wasn’t that hard. Well, it was hard because you had to read all the new cases. And while I was there, I can’t remember how we managed to connect, but I remember having a telephone conversation, at a payphone in a bar in Belfast, with Ed Sparer, who was my main mentor, who called to ask if I would come become the director of the Health Law Program.
And I knew that’s where Ed’s thinking was going. By then, it was after Dandridge, we were beginning to lose cases. Ed’s insight was that we can’t make real change in economic relationships on behalf of a coalition that is dominated by poor people. We have to have issues that cut across class lines. And he thought health care was the issue, and I thought that was brilliant. I loved Ed, so I agreed to go direct the Health Law Project at the University of Pennsylvania for three years, and help the Legal Services backup center.
JW: National Health Law Program.
SL: Yes. National Health Law Program had just started at the same time. I was on their board, and their folks were on our board. Ours had a clinic and educating students, and they were a backup center. But we were doing the same work and worked together. I worked there for three years.
JW: A lot of those cases were about women, too.
SL: Yes, a lot of those cases were about women. And that’s what led me into feminism. It was in the early ’70s. We had a women’s consciousness raising group that included the only woman member of the faculty at Penn, Martha Field and me. I was clinical faculty and the rest were students. And they are today mostly, still my best friends in the world.
But when Roe v. Wade came down, I knew about abortion. Here’s my favorite abortion story. For years, I had been compiling a zagatz of abortion providers all over the United States. As a college dorm counselor, with students I’m supposed to be helping, and friends who needed abortions. I would just grill people about how they found their abortion, how much it cost, what the password was, the telephone number. And I had it all on by then, two or three pages of yellow legal pad in my purse, so I could help people figure out the best way to get an illegal abortion.
And I’m riding home from the airport in a taxi cab and I hear on the radio, “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call the New York City Department of Health.” That was 1970. In the moment, I knew the next big issue is Medicaid coverage. Because I knew Medicaid, and I knew that any reasonable reading of the Medicaid statute means Medicaid has to pay for abortion. But the issue didn’t really emerge until after Roe v. Wade. Rhonda Copeland and I were on that in Connecticut, in Pennsylvania, not in New York. New York did the right thing without being sued.
JW: And so that lasted a few years, I think, until the Hyde Amendment, which is ’78, if I recall. I think that’s right.
JW: And so, were you involved in trying to fight the Hyde Amendment? By the way, the Hyde Amendment, for the audience, prohibited federal money for abortions.
SL: Absolutely. Lots of states actually began to exclude Medicaid for abortion even before the Hyde Amendment. And so those were the states in which Ronda and I would file suit, and sometimes even win. Actually, I think we won all of those cases in the lower courts because it was a straightforward statutory argument. It’s a mandatory service, physician services, and Medicaid covers services. Anyway, we won a lot. By the time the Hyde Amendment went to the Supreme Court, I think we had won dozens of cases in the lower courts and we won all but one, so the Supreme Court decision was kind of a surprise.
JW: And the decision obviously was, federal government can spend its money on whatever it wants.
SL: My son was born in 1977, and I agreed when he was like three months old, to take the train down, to train the folks who were going to go lobby Congress against the Hyde Amendment. I didn’t dress up because I thought I was just meeting with friends and carrying a baby and nursing. I get there and do the training, and then the people say, “Sylvia, you have to go see the most important senators.” And I said, “That’s crazy. I’m not dressed. I’ve got a baby.” But we did it. It was actually brilliant because you can walk in and have a five-minute conversation about how wonderful babies are, but that’s not why I’m here.
JW: You went on to be a full-time law professor, right?
SL: Yes, I became a full-time law professor in 1973. So, I was doing a lot of litigation as a law professor.
JW: So, the feminist movement did get you at some point?
SL: Well, yes, exactly. I mean, by the ’70s I had my consciousness raising group, and then when the Medicaid abortion questions come up, and people don’t see it as obvious, I realized it’s the same struggle, same fight.
JW: So how would you say those early fights affected your career moving forward?
SL: Well, I was the second woman at NYU Law School, and there wasn’t another for several years. The first woman at that time, didn’t think that the women had had anything to do with her getting hired. But I, as an NYU graduate, knew it never would have happened without the women students. She was so thrilled to have me come and play the role of the friend to the women students, and the women were so happy to have me come and thank them for giving me my job.
Most of my early scholarship was focused in the ’70s on health law. I wrote a book about Blue Cross. I wrote a book about medical malpractice. But also, women’s rights, and I wrote an article about insurance coverage for contraception, and insurance coverage for abortion. Both Ruth Ginsburg and I wrote basically the same article at the same time, that must have been 1983 or ’84 in which we both explain why abortion is better thought of as a gender discrimination issue than as a privacy issue. And so, I was thinking along those lines in my early scholarly career.
I think there were people on my tenure committee, one old guy in particular, had a conversation with a professor at Penn who was actually my friend Howie Lesnik. And he said, “Howie, Sylvia will never get tenure.” And Howie says, “Really? She works. What’s wrong with her? She’s written a lot of stuff.” And he said, “She works all the time, and brings her baby with her every place.”
JW: As if you had a big choice, in those years.
SL: Yes. Anyway, he did not prevail.