Leah Margulies

“We’re the generation that had an opportunity to change things – and we did.”

Interview by Kathy Rand, April 2019, with additional information at the end of the transcript from Leah

 KR:  Hi Leah. Thank you so much for agreeing to participate in our VFA Pioneer Histories Project. Can you start just by telling us your name and a bit about when and where you were born and what your family background was like?

LM:  Sure.  I’m very excited about doing this. I think this is a marvelous project because we need to keep feminist history alive. I was born April 12th, 1944. So yesterday I was 75 years old.

KR:  Happy Birthday.

LM:  Thank you, it was a momentous day for several reasons which you will learn about later on the call. I was born in Manhattan, New York City. The war was still going on and my family were leftists back in those days, so I have a real history of activism in my family. My parents used to say their first date was on a picket line. In their youth were part of the political party called YPSL’s – Young People’s Socialist League. That was like the youth arm of the Socialist Party. They got married in ’36 and then in the thirties along with a group of friends in New York City started a summer bungalow colony –  not quite the Catskills – in Putnam County, called Three Arrows, which is still alive and well today.

The children of the original members have been there. I myself have not been there and didn’t keep the family cottage going there, but so many of the originals [are] there still – the people I grew up with. I’ve always been part of an extended family, which is really a great thing. It really helps you. And in those years the founder of the War Resisters League was a member. I remember from eleven years old being in socialist classes. This is the Jewish Left wing – we’re not communists. In those years the Socialists and the Communists fought like cats and dogs.

KR:  Your family was Jewish – were they religious?

LM:  They were not religious, they were cultural. My father was brought up in a very religious family and he went to yeshiva until he was in high school when he had a major fight with his father to go to public school, which my father won. But his relationship with his father didn’t survive that. My mother’s family were Jewish intelligentsia, they came from Russia and they were all doctors and lawyers and writers and poets. One of them, her great uncle, was the first Jew on the Council of Aldermen in New York City, which was a precursor to the today’s city council. And is still kind of revered in labor history of New York City. He was also a managing editor of The Jewish Daily Forward.

But my parents were never rich. They were solid low to middle class workers. They were big labor union supporters, they got more conservative as the years went by. I come by my activism quite honestly. As my VFA biography said, I was very politicized at nine years old by a trip my family took to Florida. We were joining well off members of the family for a vacation in Florida. We didn’t have the money to fly, so we drove. And that was the days before any superhighways – you just drove on Route 1 from New York to Florida. It was the days of Jim Crow.

I was absolutely traumatized by Jim Crow by going into gas stations with Whites Only signs on the bathrooms and the Whites Only water fountains. My parents were obviously not supporters of Jim Crow, so the whole way to Florida, even though we stayed in motels that said Whites Only, we wouldn’t go into any of the restaurants. We would eat in the car and picnic the whole way down. My parents didn’t support that. I was traumatized by the poverty in which black people lived in the south. You couldn’t be shielded from it when there were no superhighways – it was right there in front of your eyes.

I remember the whole time I talked to my parents about what I was witnessing. That was a really major event in my life – my early life – and subsequently in junior high school I wrote my first research paper at the suggestion of my father on the Ku Klux Klan. I was absolutely shocked by the history of how many people were lynched and the race riots and all of that. I had a lot of early influences. It’s not a surprise that I got ultimately involved in the civil rights movement.

When I was a teenager in high school I spent two summers in the South working on integration projects at the cusp of the civil rights movement in 1959  and 1960. I was 15 or 16 in a town called Philo, North Carolina. I was at that point a junior counselor at a very small Quaker camp related to the building of a Quaker school in the mountains of North Carolina and a group of us we, integrated a move. We were just kids, walking and holding hands because some of our campers were also black and we walked in and we integrated this movie theater in 1960. I don’t think it lasted. No one was in the theater, but we decided we were going, and we saw the movie The Mouse That Roared. And ironically I’m still friends with the guy that was our one black camper.

I was of course involved in student power at Boston University. I started at BU in ’62. By the time I graduated everything had changed. The 60s just changed everything. At the beginning of the 60s girls could not wear pants at Boston University unless it was 15 degrees or below. They used to check our legs for wearing stockings to Sunday dinner. And of course, we had parietal hours. I didn’t know what feminism was. Even though Betty Friedan I think had already published her book, I didn’t know about it. I got into a dormitory at  BU with just women.

We were the first French dorm and you were supposed to only speak French, but we only spoke it a little bit. It attracted the most rebellious group of girls. And oh my god, we got involved in everything and we broke all the rules. Again, I reconnected with several of my college friends in the past few years and that was an extremely formative experience for all of us. So yeah I got involved in civil rights there and the Free Speech Movement. And then in the anti-war movement, especially at BU because Martin Luther King was a graduate of the Divinity School.

A group of us who had been rebels in the French dormitory ended up in our junior year moving to the small dormitory, home of one of the ministers that was part of the Boston University religious support groups. He was a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We all got really indoctrinated into what was going on in the civil rights movement and then of course Martin Luther King led the fight against the Vietnam War. All of that was happening around me, but I always participated. I also always felt a little out of it.

Leadership was always all male. I hadn’t identified that yet, but by the end of my time at BU people were beginning to talk about women’s issues. I moved to New York and got involved with a man and got married fairly early – 1968 – and we moved to New Haven because he was starting graduate school at Yale. Once there, I found out from my New York City friends – who had already been part of a women’s liberation group in New York City – within the next year were all part of WITCH, had been to the 1968 demo in Atlantic City and I went to my first women’s liberation meeting in December of ’68.

I came home and I woke up my then husband (not married to that guy – we divorced a few years later). I woke him up and I said. “This is where I’m going to be the rest of my life and I want to play the flute.”  I don’t know where that came from, but shortly thereafter I found a used flute and I bought it. Meanwhile, at the same time, women’s liberation was beginning to really influence what was happening at Yale. And in 1969 the first women were admitted to Yale and we had a women’s conference of the budding women’s liberation movement in New Haven on the Yale campus at the beginning of the fall of ’69.

And by that time a group of us had already begun to jam. I was meeting other women in the women’s liberation movement and we were beginning to jam, and I had heard that there was this freshman coming to Yale who already played in rock bands. I knew that she had bright red hair, so I looked all around the conference and found this young woman named Kit McClure and I said, “Hey, a group of us are starting to jam – you want to join us?” And she said, “Sure.”

And thus, The New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band was born. I think we played our first event on August 26th, 1969 at a room at the Yale Law School. And for the next four years we were part of the cultural arm of the women’s liberation movement. We played for the first national abortion march in 1972. We had about 5,000 people there. This is before Roe v. Wade.

My other feminist work in New Haven was, I had been part of a research collective with both men and women and we were researching multi-national corporations and how they were, because it was still the Vietnam War and we were interested in how they were operating outside the national boundaries. This is a long story; I could talk an hour just on that so I’m not going to do that.

But the ultimate conclusion was we realized that the structure of transnational corporations operating above national boundaries was essentially a threat to democracy, because there wasn’t any way of managing or providing any legal oversight that would transcend national borders. I got really involved, very deeply involved in that work.

And a couple of us, myself and the person who was the drummer in the rock band, when that collective stopped working we started the Women’s Research Project and we tried to speak all over Connecticut to get the growing women’s liberation movement to think about economic issues and the fact that we saw what was happening wasn’t just about workers and production from war, but we saw it as the consumer revolution was directed at women as the consumers in the family.

Particularly as consumerism and marketing spread to developing countries, the idea of the global corporations was less conquering people by war, but by conquering people by selling products. By selling the U. S. and the Western consumer culture through marketing and promotion. And that they could squelch political revolution by the consumer growth revolution. So that was really a key part of my indoctrination during those years. And everything that we predicted unfortunately has turned out to be true.

The New Haven Women’s Liberation were one of the key organizers – the group in New York City was called Citywide. That was the women’s liberation group. There was WITCH, there was Redstockings too. We were part of a growing network across the country of women’s liberation groups that knew about the journals in Baltimore, the women’s rights newspapers all around the country. It was a very exciting time.

My marriage split and I pretty much spent 110% on my women’s liberation movement and it totally transformed me and my life, because being one of the older people in the women’s liberation movement at the time – we had grown up in the 50s. In fact, my first meeting when I was in high school I dated a guy who said to my mother one night, “Oh she’s a good arguer – she’s going to make – she should grow up to be a lawyer.” And my mother said, and this is a direct quote, “No, she’s going to be a housewife.” So, it was very important many years later that I finally went to law school.

KR:  Was your mother still alive at the time?

LM:  Yes, she was. And she was very proud of me. But everything I did from the time I was in my 20s and got involved with women’s liberation – everything I did terrified her. In fact, I ended up driving with a group of women who had traveled from the West Coast. They were part of the collective, It Ain’t Me Babe, and they had a newspaper out in Oakland. I knew some of those people; they had traveled to New England to get trained by the press collective there. They trained people how to run printing presses and things like that. Everything was collectives in those years.

And so, they stopped by my house in New Haven and I invited them to stay over and anyway to make a long story short, I ended up driving to the west coast with them and going with them. I didn’t dare call my mother until we got five hundred miles out of New Haven. And when I called my mother and said I had joined this group of women and I was going to the west coast with them my mother freaked out and said, “You’re going to ruin your marriage, Leah.” And I said, “Oh no, everything will be ok.” Of course, within two years that marriage was over.

So yes, she had a lot of trepidations about what was going to happen in my life because she had been brought up in a different time. And really the goal of a woman was supposed to be – in my time, to be married and have a man take care of you.

Back to the New Haven story. The New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band did an album in nineteen seventy-two with Rounder Records and that has been revived a lot since, so people can go online and actually find our album. I ended up not just playing flute. I ultimately learned how to play bass and I was the bass player.

When we played we also held workshops for women and we only did the East Coast really from Washington up to Vermont. We did Cornell, we did Princeton, we played all over for a whole bunch of years. There was a sister band in Chicago, so we made the album with the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band. We ended up playing at a lot of NOW events and things like that. So, we were trying to bridge the generation gap. At the colleges mostly we held workshops on how to learn how to play rock music because we felt that rock music was so male dominated and that we really needed women to come into their own in and rock music. And actually, that’s taken many [years] to change. But that was a beginning.

And then in 1974 for a range of reasons I ended up moving to New York City. We were joining women’s and men’s collectives that were happening on the Upper West Side in New York City at the time, because I was a women’s liberationist, but also I leaned left a lot. I was not part of the women’s liberation movement that felt we should just have our own world and leave men out entirely. In those years the war was still be going on and we thought we could make a revolution in this country. That was a very deeply held belief that turned out not to be true. But I didn’t believe you could make a revolution and not include men. That just seems very wrong to me.

When I got to New York I ended up in a different place because I was deeply committed to this work about transnational corporations and the threat that they posed to democracy. So, I was able within a year of moving here, to get a job at the Interfaith Center and Corporate Responsibility in New York City. And right before that I had done research on a book. I was a last-minute researcher on a book called Hungry for Profits. It was a compilation of case studies of transnational corporations violations of human rights in Latin America.

And there was a chapter that I was asked to do some final research on called “Formula for Malnutrition.” I learned about this problem of U.S. and European companies, mainly Nestlé, promoting very unethically bottle feeding under conditions where it was predictably dangerous that babies would die from malnutrition due to diarrhea and other diseases, because they needed all the protections of breastfeeding especially in the environments they lived in. And all of a sudden I introduced this problem to the National Council of Churches, who were on the board of ICCR.

And even though the men were like – breastfeeding we’re going to fight for breastfeeding? The women were gung-ho and I myself had originally thought breastfeeding trampled on women’s rights. I totally had to rethink everything, because I realized the fact of the matter is that this is a marketing scheme and it’s actually dangerous. It’s even dangerous in industrialized countries. We have much more morbidity among bottle fed babies today than among breastfed babies, because of all the incredible properties that breast milk has. That job then took over my life, because I started this campaign to challenge the marketing practices of this industry. We started with shareholder resolutions and we had a lawsuit. Again, it’s on its own, it could be its own interview.

KR:  You are amazing.

LM:  I started the Nestlé Boycott; you’ve probably heard of it.

KR:  Of course.

LM:  Out of ICCR I formed a group of other activists who were not tied to the national churches and had more freedom to do things. And then formed an alliance with this human rights group in Minnesota and a food activism group in San Francisco and together out of the Minnesota group we launched the Nestlé Boycott July 4th, 1977. I can’t explain how this grew from just a handful of us when I borrowed five hundred dollars from my boss that ICCR to start the Nestlé Boycott Newsletter.

I can’t explain how this grew, but the time was right and also it was such a stark story of how marketing a product that was appropriate although not the greatest in Western circumstances, became deadly in third world circumstances. There was no clean water and no refrigeration and no understanding of sterilizing of bottles and nipples and all of that. That grew into a major campaign, some of which is still going on today. We settled the boycott in the U.S. in the beginning of ‘85 or end of ‘84. It was taken up again by the Europeans when Nestlé wouldn’t comply with the terms that we settled the boycott on.

But by that time that organization, INFACT was on to other campaigns. And I don’t know if you know of INFACT, but they won the G.E. boycott and got G.E. out of the military production. The last 10 or 12 years has become – we changed the name to Corporate Accountability. I was on the board of Corporate Accountability for 16 years, up until just a couple of years ago. My passion ended up becoming this organization that has fought for Corporate Accountability all these years and the organization is 40 years old now. And still very strong. In fact, I just got a birthday greeting from the executive director in my inbox today and also from the person I started the Nestlé Boycott with.

KR:  That’s wonderful.

LM:  So first the women’s movement and then the Nestlé Boycott really transformed –  those two things just totally transformed my life. In ’78, because I was working inside the churches, I had a lot of ability to communicate with many people all over the country. I wrote a lot of articles and was published in things like the Methodist women’s magazine. It went out to millions of people things like that. And we were able to get 50,000 letters on Senator Kennedy’s desk and he held hearings at which Nestlé became the star horrible witness because they completely said – they’re not responsible for the bad water conditions in all the countries. It wasn’t their problem.

So that that led Kennedy to ask the World Health Organization who I  had recruited to come and testify at the Senate hearing – because I was already involved with them – to ask WHO to start a process that would lead to a code of conduct. That was first time a group of advocacy NGO’s – not official world is like Red Cross and things like that – got invited to be actual participants in a U.N. policy development meeting. We ended up getting – through a lot of help and work and being involved in the negotiations – getting a commitment from WHO to develop the code and the code was developed.

It was adopted in 1981 and the U.S. under Reagan, because Reagan had just come in, was the only country in the world to vote against this code of marketing. And that gave us incredible publicity. But the other thing that did for me personally is I learned how important every single word in this piece of legislation was important, even though it didn’t end up having teeth as a convention, it became a U.N. resolution. But like the Declaration of Human Rights at the same legal level as that. It didn’t have teeth.

That was in ‘81 and just three weeks ago I was one of the main speakers at the breastfeeding and feminism conference held at the University of North Carolina and got to explain the whole history of how breastfeeding became an international cause – celebrity. And that was very exciting. And all of these young women for the first time who participated in this conference, and it was an amazing conference, about 200 women learned the whole history of the movement and how the code was developed. It was very exciting and very affirming for me personally. And that was so much fun.

Anyway, this lady ended up going to law school.

KR:  Tell us about that experience. I was just going to say –  so this led you to actually defy your mother’s prediction and go to law school. Where and when did you do that?

LM:  Exactly.  I ended up going to Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, New York where my family first came from. Largely because I was still working on the Nestlé Boycott full-time and I needed to go to a night school, and I needed to go to a school that was easy to get to from my job. And Brooklyn Law School was on the same subway line I was on. I went at night for four years, but I ended up quitting my ICCR job a year before I graduated for a whole range of reasons. By that time, I felt like, “Oh my God – I don’t know if I can sustain this any longer.” We were just ending the Nestlé Boycott in the U.S. and I thought I may not graduate law school if I keep this up and I really need to graduate.

So anyway, I did graduate and at the end of law school instead of working on anti-corporate campaigns, which I had envisioned but I couldn’t figure out any way to earn a living doing that. And coming from the family I came from, my family didn’t have money, I never inherited any money and I needed to figure out how to survive. I never went to law school to become a corporate lawyer or anything like that. Immediately after graduation I started with Legal Services and became a legal services attorney helping people prevent their evictions then.

Back in the 80s when actually we’re not in the housing crisis we’re in now it was a completely different kind of practice than now. But after five years some of my old friends from the U.N. contacted me and wanted me to join them in their efforts to hold corporations accountable for their abusive practices on a global scale. I got hired by the U.N. Center on Transnational Corporations and I worked there for three years to try to get companies to support guidelines, to control abusive practices and to practice the precautionary principle with respect to their operations around the world.

And that is a battle that is still going on strongly. But then at the same time an operation was set up at UNICEF in WHO. This is 20 years after the code was adopted to try to get countries to implement the code as national law. And also, to promote the correct breastfeeding support practices. And they started a program called the Baby Friendly Hospital initiative until I was hired there to start the first legal office on this Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative. I ended up being at the U.N. for seven years, but I lost that job due to frankly even under Clinton the US government thought I was promoting anti-corporate law at the U.N. And so, I lost that job.

By that time, even though I’m pretty old already – by that time I had adopted a baby boy. At 47, I became an adoptive mother. My son is now 27. My partner and I – I actually did end up with a man, we’ve never married but we’ve been involved with each other one way or another for almost 40 years. Last night I went out to celebrate my seventy fifth birthday with my partner, my son and his girlfriend which was super fun.

After I lost that job, I ended up spending almost ten years doing unrelated work that I could get in the corporate sector not as a lawyer. I would never tell anybody I was a lawyer. I could be fairly highly paid and be able to support my child and that was the most important thing to me. So, I did that for another 10 years and that was kind of uneventful, except it got me back involved with INFACT. That’s when I started to get back on the board and I worked with them on what became the First International Public Health Convention to control tobacco use – which has been a major convention. I got invited back on to the board.

So, I continued my anti-corporate or holding corporations accountable for their abuses work during those years. I did that on the side. I just made money as a tech writer in the corporate world so I could work at home part of the time. My son when I adopted him was a newborn. Motherhood and working are very challenging. Out of the blue I got invited to run a small legal services project and that was in 2006. So, from 2006 for 10 years I ran a small legal services project. I do remember telling my son who I think was around 9 or 10 or 11 at the time, I said, “I’m going back into legal services and we’re not going to be able to take our vacations to Puerto Rico and all that. But it’s very important that I go back to work that I really love and can throw my heart into.”

Three years ago, at the end of ten years running this project called Law Help New York, which was to provide legal information and support and referrals online to low income people throughout New York State. It was an online project where we organized 100 law volunteers to provide online chats for people to help them get this kind of information in English and Spanish. After 10 years, the project was moved by the group that ran it to another agency. I was at the New York City Bar Association for 10 years and I lost my job. So, all of a sudden I found myself at 72, out of work.

I hadn’t really amassed any great wealth because I had done public interest work all my life. And as I said, I never inherited any money from my family. I had already lived [a] completely alternative life. Most of the years from when I moved to New York frankly until just a few years ago I lived in communes. Until ‘91 I lived in women’s communes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I  lived a very alternative life. And I couldn’t figure out what the hell I was going to do and how was I going to get a job at my age.

And in all honesty it was very hard. But during that time New York City became the first city in the United States to adopt the right to counsel in Housing Courts for low income people. So, all of a sudden all the legal services organizations in New York City had to find more lawyers who were willing and able to do this work. The bottom line was I had had five years of court experience in the 80s, so I had to learn everything all over again. You don’t remember this stuff when [it’s] like 25 – 28 years ago.

So anyway, I got hired by a very local legal services project right in my neighborhood and I live in Brooklyn now in a very mixed – racially, economically, ethnically, culturally – community called Prospect Lefferts Gardens in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. I got hired at Campbell Legal Services as a housing lawyer and I had to start all over again. And now I’ve been there, it will be two years in September. Last summer all the lawyers in that organization decided to unionize and we unionized. I’d been very involved in the union. And we became part of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys which is a UAW Local and we’re one of the small shops involved. We have about 40 members of the Union.

The union itself is what the Legal Aid Society in New York is organized under that they have over a thousand lawyers and probably around fifteen hundred members altogether that are the other legal staff, paralegals and support people. And there are other members of this local. And then the Legal Services in New York City is organized under another UAW local. So, the fact of the matter is…the majority of legal services lawyers in New York City work under a UAW Local Union and some are old contracts, like when I was in legal services in the 80s we were already unionized. So yesterday on my birthday after a year of trying to negotiate a good contract, we took a vote to strike and our strike starts on Monday. So here I am at 75 in the middle of a strike.

KR:  Your life has come full circle. That’s awesome.

LM:  I know. All these young people that I work with, I’m obviously the [oldest] person [on] staff. Most everybody is in their late 20s to like 30. But we’re all working together on this strike. And my house is where we meet because it’s closest to the office and I actually do have a house with a backyard in this part of Brooklyn. So, I’m able to offer this space and so we have our union meetings here. Now with the strike it’s going to be part of our union central for this strike. So, we’re on strike as of Monday. It’s been a crazy life.

KR:  Oh, that’s great. It is fabulous. It’s amazing.

LM:  One thing I didn’t add – from most the last ten years I was a member of the Brooklyn Women’s Chorus which is a group led by Bev Grant who’s a feminist. Long term she was part of WITCH in the 60s and the Third World Newsreel and we do concerts all over. Women’s liberation people’s songs. When I started this job, I had to drop out because it turns out that learning this practice all over again, there are many nights when I’m writing legal papers. We’re just trying to prevent evictions and when you have a client that’s about to be evicted, you have to do their legal papers right away. It’s literally urgent.

In fact, I had a client that was scheduled for eviction on Friday and I ended up staying up late on Wednesday to finish her papers and to get them in and signed to prevent her actual eviction. I was feeling pretty depressed before I got this job. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I didn’t think we’d be able to keep this house. I got the job just in the nick of time. It took me a year and a half because when you’re in your 70s nobody really cares about experiences. It’s their mistake, but that’s what happens.

So, if it wasn’t for the right to counsel legislation in New York, I probably wouldn’t have gotten this job. Especially a lot of legal services salaries relate to your graduation and so why would they hire somebody who graduated in 1985 where they can hire somebody who graduated in 2015. It’s a huge salary disparity. I found that going back to this practice was very invigorating and kept me a lot younger because I had to climb all the stairs in housing court in Brooklyn which is the worst course you ever saw. It’s just a mess.

KR:  It’s another side benefit of getting you back in shape.

LM:  It’s another side benefit, it forces me to do stairs. In fact, just a few months ago New York’s The New York Times did a five day in a row special on the front page about the conditions in Brooklyn Housing Court and what was happening to tenants there. That’s where I’m at today doing this work.  I remember saying to my friends back in New Haven after I had split from my husband – I used to say I would have committed suicide at 40 if I hadn’t found the women’s liberation movement. Totally transformed my life. I felt very unworthy.

KR:  A lot of women do and did.

LM:  We’re the generation that really had an opportunity to change things, and we did.

Note added by Leah

Leah testified at the Senate Hearing chaired by Senator Kennedy in 1978.  That Hearing is what led the WHO to begin deliberations on The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981, with the US being the only “No” vote in the world – Reagan thought it was an attack on the capitalist system! For him, it was better to protect the companies than the babies!  As a postscript, in those years WHO and UNICEF estimated that more than 1.2 million babies a year would be saved by breastfeeding rather than bottle feeding – now that number is down to about 800,00 annually, so even though the industry is still going strong and many countries have not adopted the code fully as law, we’ve made some headway – so we did manage to save millions in these 38 years, but millions more to go.