THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Our battles were fought very carefully and very strategically.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, June 2020
JW: I am Judy Waxman and I am interviewing Marna Tucker. Today is June 26, 2020 and we’re in the middle of quarantine time during the Coronavirus pandemic. And therefore, we are doing this over Skype. So good afternoon, Marna. Let’s just start with when and where you were born.
MT: I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 5th, 1941.
JW: What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement?
MT: I will start with when I became an activist. There was no women’s movement when I started my activism. I was reared in Houston, Texas in a racially segregated environment. Schools were not integrated. And I being Jewish, was in a very isolated Jewish community. The Jewish community was a segregated community, not in terms of housing or employment but in terms of social life.
I lived a fairly closed life with little diversity in my experiences until I went to college in 1959, a couple of years after Brown v. Board of Education. Like the Emancipation Proclamation, it took a few years for Texas to realize that the law had changed. So, when I went to the University of Texas in Austin, the University was integrated but the dorms were not. The activities were not integrated; movies were not; sports were not. There were some Black students at the University, but they lived in separate facilities from the White students. That housing segregation made it difficult to get to know them.
I became active on campus early after my arrival and was selected for one of the honorary service organizations. I became President at the end of my freshman year, and I decided that it was time to have a Black member. The campus was beginning to become interested in integrating several aspects of student life. The following year, I was selected for the junior honorary service organization, which was called Orange Jackets. I became President and was successful in selecting a Black member of Orange Jackets for the first time.
Now, all of this was going on while pro-integration students were boycotting the movie theaters and having demonstrations in front of the State Capitol to get the Board of Regents at the University to take steps to integrate more aspects of the University. I got a flavor of being an activist; I also paid a price. Because I had been President of both the freshman and junior honorary service organizations, it would have been expected for me to be selected for the senior honorary, Mortar Board Society. But my liberalism was unpopular among the majority of Mortar Board members. So, when it came time to be selected for Mortar Boards, I paid the price for selecting a Black Orange Jacket. I was not selected.
I learned how to be an activist in Texas. However, in terms of women’s rights, there was not any kind of a movement at that time. But because I wanted to go to law school, I was ridiculed by many who thought it a better choice for a woman to get married. That ridicule planted the seeds of feminism in me.
When I started Georgetown Law School in 1962, there were nine women in a class of a hundred and seventy. Of those nine women, five of us graduated and I think we all graduated within the top ten in the class. We all knew when we entered that it would be tough. But we were tougher.
Still, at that time, there was no women’s movement. There were no dorms for women to live together. There were no such things as a women’s caucus or women’s collective. We were “pre-collective” women’s rights – although I felt the sting of all of the women’s “wrongs” in law school. I started becoming very active in the civil rights movement. In hindsight, I was born at the right time for an activist. I was on the cutting edge of the civil rights movement, the cutting edge of the women’s rights movement, the cutting edge of legal services for the poor. I had lots of opportunities to get involved in the changes that were taking place in society in the 60’s.
President Lyndon B. Johnson started the Great Society, a federally- funded effort to eliminate poverty in the country. An important part of that program was the Neighborhood Legal Services project. When I graduated from law school, I didn’t even think about becoming a lawyer in a large law firm because women were not hired at that time. Women were not even interviewed on campus at that time. I was among the top students in my class and I was a Law Review editor, but I didn’t even think about joining a law firm.
While in law school in the summer of 1964, I worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. That was the “Mississippi Summer” when three young civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi. I had decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer for civil rights in the South.
After my internship that summer, I applied for a legal position in the Civil Rights Division. I was told that I really couldn’t become a trial lawyer in the South because it could necessitate a White woman driving with a Black man. They needed to “protect” me from all the terrible things that would happen in that event. I look back at that: It was the summer of 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. What they were telling me was actually illegal at that time, but nobody thought about it. They offered me a job in the voting rights section of the Civil Rights Division where I would look at voting patterns on machines all day. No thank you !I wanted to be where the action was.
Then I got lucky. I talked to the man who was my mentor in law school, Dean A. Kenneth Pye, who was a visionary. I was on scholarship at Georgetown, and he was the advisor for the scholarship students. He took very good care of me and made me feel valued. I told him I wanted to be a trial lawyer but that the Justice Department turned me down. Just by happenstance he said, “We just started this new program that’s funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity called the Neighborhood Legal Services Project . I’m Chairman of the Board of the local program. So why don’t you start there? You can become a trial lawyer in the city.” I said, “In a heartbeat!”
So, I joined the Neighborhood Legal Services Project. It was one of the first legal services programs funded by the federal government. I was soon out in the neighborhood handling rent strikes for community groups and taking all kinds of new cases for the disadvantaged—people who could not afford legal representation. My office was located at 14th and Park Road in the District of Columbia. I had no fear walking to my office at night from where I parked my car. It was a different time, and certainly a new experience for lawyers. I wrote an article based on some of my adventures called Justice in Sneakers.
I had two bosses, the Director and the Deputy Director. The Director was Julian Dugas. The Deputy Director was Earl Johnson Jr., who subsequently became the Deputy Director of the entire National Legal Services Program of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). He read my article and said, “We have a vacancy in San Francisco. We need a Deputy Director to administer the new Legal Services programs in seven Western states.” I immediately said, “I’ll go out and interview for the job.”
I was hired for the job as Deputy Director of the Legal Services Program of the Western Region of OEO. After about a month of my being there, my boss decided he was going to take another job. So, I became Acting Director of the regional Legal Services program.
I had to learn a lot about politics in a short time. Ronald Reagan was Governor of California. The Office of Economic Opportunity and the Legal Services Program were new federally-funded programs that were beginning to make waves on behalf of poor people. California had not yet created a state bureaucracy to manage the federal programs.
The way the law was written and conceived was a state Governor could veto a federally funded program. However, the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Sargent Shriver, was allowed to override a Governor’s veto. When I started as Deputy Director, there was a controversial program called the California Rural Legal Assistance Program (CRLA). It provided legal representation for farm workers in cases against the agribusinesses of California. It was a very hot program and it was coming up for renewal of its federal grant. My office was being extremely judicious in our grant review because we expected that Governor Reagan was going to veto the grant. And we hoped Sargent Shriver would override that veto.
But what happened before the CRLA grant review was even more interesting and ultimately more significant, because very few people knew about it and it set a guiding precedent. One of the programs I administered was the Ventura County Legal Aid Society. In establishing the program, we took great care to involve the local Bar Association in creating and supporting that new program. By involving the bar association, we dispelled the fear of “outside federal money.”
One of Governor Reagan’s chief aides was William Clark, who was a lawyer from Ventura County. Reagan was under great pressure from some of the growers to veto the Ventura County Legal Aid Society federal grant. As Acting Director, I was enlisted to go to Sacramento to convince the Governor not to veto the Legal Aid Society. There I was, 27 years old, flying to Sacramento, meeting with aides, Lyn Nofziger and William Clark, who later became figures in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. I was able to convince them to allow the program to continue because the Bar Association supported its continuation. I remember flying back from Sacramento smiling to myself and saying, “I got the Governor to take the veto back.”
I learned a lot about politics from that experience. I learned about being prepared and making sure you line up the right people on your side of the issue. I learned about how important the perception of control was. I learned how to make friends out of the opposition.
I did that job all alone and handled several controversial matters for almost a year. Then somebody said to me, “You’ve been doing the job for a long time, why don’t you apply to be the Director?” That would mean an increase in salary and status. So, I applied; the first woman to apply for the Regional Director’s position. As soon as I applied, they hired a man.
That was the first real discrimination I felt as a woman. Again, it was a predictable result at the time, but it didn’t have the name yet. Sex discrimination was illegal by law, but no cases had yet been brought. That painful slight got me active in the concerns of women.
I joined the American Bar Association, which became a very important part of my career. There were very few women active in the American Bar Association in the 1960’s. I joined the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, which was the group focused on civil liberties and civil rights. At that time, interestingly, the people who were on the governing Section Council were Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was a professor at that time; Rita Hauser, who was the U.N. Human Rights Ambassador; Warren Christopher, a large firm leading lawyer, who later became Secretary of State and several federal judges.
One of my mentors, whom I met through the Section, was Jerome J. Shestack. Jerry Shestack eventually became President of the ABA. Aware of the pressure being brought on law firms by top law graduates to do more pro bon publico work, Jerry convinced the Section to sponsor a program to help develop pro bono publico programs in private law firms and persuaded the Ford Foundation to fund it. He also convinced me to take the position as a consultant to the Section to run the program. The member of the Council designated to supervise this program, was Warren Christopher. “Chris” and I became friends and I think he was pleased with my work.
Much later on, when he became Secretary of State and was vetting people for appointments by the incoming President of the U.S., he called me to ask my views on a few people who were under consideration for Presidential appointments. My confidence soared when I realized that Warren Christopher respected my views on such important matters. My activities in the ABA connected me with several people who at the time might not have been terribly influential. But as history would prove, many became powerful.
In the ABA, the Section became the leading voice for involving women in the Association and for advancing women’s rights. In my advancement in the ABA, I became Chair of the Section. Two of my very close friends, Brooksley Born and Sally Determan, both became Chairs of the Section. We were a mighty crew. We would sponsor critical issues in the ABA House of Delegates like forbidding sex discrimination in private clubs and supporting a woman’s right to choose.
The significance of obtaining the House of Delegates’ support for all these issues advancing women’s rights, was that if a policy position is approved by the House of Delegates, then the ABA could use its lobbyists and its funds to advance that policy in the Congress and in various state and local legislative bodies. Many of those, needless to say, were very controversial issues. We strategically used the debates in the House of Delegates to educate the lawyers of America on those important issues.
One of my favorite issues involved the Family and Medical Leave Act. Our friend, Judy Lichtman, called me one day because she wanted to get the ABA’s endorsement of the Family and Medical Leave Act which was pending in Congress. She said, “Marna, can you be the point person in the ABA to get their endorsement?” We succeeded in getting the House of Delegates to approve the Act. Congress passed it and that was one of the first acts President Bill Clinton signed.
In the ABA, Brooksley Born and I started the Women’s Caucus, which became a vibrant political group within the Association. As the number of women increased, the Women’s Caucus became more and more influential. The Caucus continues to this day and anybody running for President of the ABA, appears before the Caucus and seeks its endorsement. The Caucus was responsible for advancing the proposition that if anyone was a member of a discriminatory private club, they would not be considered for appointment to the federal bench. That policy was once considered controversial. Today, it is baked into the judicial selection process.
The Women’s Caucus had a clear strategy for educating the ABA about women’s issues, and slowly but surely. the ABA became a very strong advocate for women’s rights. We took baby steps, occurring over a period of four or five years. But we slowly built our alliances and developed respect and credibility in the ABA.
Ultimately, with the strong urging of the Women’s Caucus, the ABA created a formal body to focus on women’s issues. This meant the ABA would fund staff and program activities, which heretofore had been done voluntarily by the Women’s Caucus. ABA President, Robert MacCrate, appointed Hillary Rodham Clinton as the first chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. The time was right. The battles were fought very strategically.
If I had to pinpoint the time and place I became a women’s rights advocate, it would be during my days in the ABA. During that time, I became one of the founding members of the National Women’s Law Center. Marcia Greenberger was the first director and helped build the organization to become one of the most important women’s legal groups to this day. Being involved with the Center and its founding is one of the most important things that I have done.
Around the same time, I became very active in the D.C. Bar. The District of Columbia Bar was started in 1972. Prior to its founding, the Bar Association of the District of Columbia (Bar Association) had been the influential group of lawyers who selected the judges and spoke for the legal profession in D.C. The Bar Association was a private organization that had an earlier history as an all- white, all male. bar group. The District of Columbia Bar was a mandatory bar which required that all lawyers be members. It was created by federal statute and was an arm of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
The statute required that both the officers and a Board of Governors had to be selected for the new Bar. The 70’s were years of major change. Several activist lawyers’ groups were interested in having representation in the new Bar. Women’s groups, public interest law groups, and civil rights groups wanted a voice. I was active in several of these groups. The statute spelled out how the selections for leadership of the Bar would be made.
The D.C. Court of Appeals called a special meeting of all members of the newly created Bar to select a Nominating Committee. The young lawyers’ groups used a telephone tree to alert everybody to go to the meeting at the Mayflower Hotel to insure that we would have sufficient votes to elect a couple of people to the Nominating Committee. The Nominating Committee was to be composed of five people. All of the young lawyers decided to support a slate representing all their interests. I was one of the people on that slate. That entire slate was elected. I was selected as one of the members of the Nominating Committee.
The old Bar Association leadership and the DC Court of Appeals were taken by surprise. “Who are these people who are going to select and nominate all the officers?”
The Nominating Committee was strategic and careful. We realized that we had been given power, but we had to use it well. For President, we nominated three people: E. Barrett Prettyman, who was one of the old guard from a large law firm but was a progressive.; Gladys Kessler. who was a member of a public interest law firm, and Milton Heller, who was from a smaller law firm. Lo and behold, that was the beginning of what became the new progressive Bar.
I was very interested in disciplinary proceedings and eventually was appointed by the D.C. Court of Appeals to the Board on Professional Responsibility (BPR). I enjoyed working with ethics and discipline, which I continued to do throughout my entire career.
A couple of years after I had served on the BPR, I received call from Marcia Greenberger, who was then on the Nominating Committee of the D.C. Bar. She said, “Marna, we’d like you to run for President of the D.C. Bar.” There had never been a woman Bar President at that time. I eagerly accepted the nomination and conducted a campaign. I contacted all the minority Bar associations as well as law firms, listening to their views and seeking their support. I would speak to all of them. I learned what lawyers were interested in.
I ran against a wonderful guy named Mike Curtin. Ten thousand lawyers voted, and I won by a substantial majority. If anything in my career could be called a major turning point, it was my election as the first woman President of the DC Bar. Recognition by my peers to lead the second largest Bar Association in the country was a major injection of confidence. I worked very closely with all of the people in the Bar-the leaders and the staff. The D.C. Bar started as a very progressive Bar for minorities and women and still is to this day. That’s one of the accomplishments of which I’m most proud.
I remember saying at my inaugural opening address,” I hope that someday we’ll lose count of how many women have been president of the D.C. Bar.” To tell the truth, I think we have. We’ve had so many women presidents and women running for office, that women candidates are as commonplace as men. But at that time, my selection was a milestone, both for the Bar and for me.
In 1983, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on what was called the Second Equal Rights Amendment. The Equal Rights Amendment did not get enacted the first time it was passed by the Congress and sent to the states for ratification. Phyllis Schlafly had launched powerful opposition against it. In 1983, Senate hearings were held again because the proponents only needed a couple of states to secure ratification and the mood of the country seemed more accepting.
I was asked by Eleanor Smeal, then President of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Marcia Greenberger and some of the other leaders of various women’s organizations, to testify on their behalf before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I had just been elected President of the Bar, which apparently gave me some gravitas. The Senate Judiciary Committee was chaired by Senator Strom Thurmond, a curmudgeonly but powerful Southern conservative. The Senator most interested in defeating the ERA at the time was Orrin Hatch. It was a tough group.
My testimony was given on behalf of myself, but it really was on behalf of a host of women’s groups. Their leaders carefully briefed me on the major issues and what to expect. I had never testified to the Congress before. To tell you the truth, I was really nervous. My husband, who had been chief counsel of the Constitutional Rights Subcommittee of the Senate for many years urged me to bow out. He said, “Marna, don’t do it. They’ll chew you up. They’re tough.”
I looked at him and said, “I’m not scared of them. I’m a trial lawyer. The senators there are only one question deep. They’ve been given one thing to ask me and I’ll answer. They’re not there to cross-examine.” He still was very concerned. And I said, “I’m doing it.”
I took our eight-year-old daughter with me and she sat through the testimony. I was on a two-person panel with a law professor named Walter Burns. He opposed the ERA and sat next to me blowing smoke in my face as I was talking. That shows you what the times were. Literally. he had a cigarette and he was blowing smoke in my face. He had one side of the issue and I had the other.
It was a challenging experience. I am reminded of it now because my son had saved the videotape of that hearing and recently sent it to me. It was fascinating to hear the horrors the Senators were predicting if the ERA passed, such as what would happen if two women could get married or two men marry each other. Society has really evolved in thirty years.
Knowing what is happening these days and what the Senate Committee was predicting as a parade of horribles if the Equal Rights Amendment passed, you have to throw your head back and laugh and say,” Just do your job. Charge ahead.”. That experience was another example where I was just lucky to be there at the right time.
Fighting the good fight on behalf of women has been much of my life. My very closest friends were soldiers with me in this movement. We have kept those relationships going. The women’s rights movement taught me almost everything I know about power and leadership and governance. It gave me confidence. You develop confidence when you’re not afraid and you’re willing to take risks. When I became involved in the women’s movement, we didn’t know where it was going. I was really willing to just jump out there. I didn’t care what the risks were because I was just confident. I had good people with me. We were doing the right thing.
In terms of my personal life, it gave me an ability to raise two wonderful children who are also soldiers in good causes. I have one daughter and one son. My husband was quite supportive in all of my activities. But he would also argue with me about many things such as what steps I should take. He was a really good sounding board, and we marched together on all of those things.
The women’s movement is very much a part of me. After I worked for the ABA in the pro bono movement, I started working with a public interest law firm where I began handling sex discrimination. At the time, those cases took forever to resolve, so I took a couple of divorce cases. It turned out I did pretty well at that. At the beginning, when I was young and new, the only clients I had were women. But I was lucky and got the right women.
One of my first divorce cases involved a woman who worked at a large law firm. She was involved with one of the major partners at that firm. My client suggested the partner that he hire me for his divorce. That divorce was one of the worst, most complicated divorces in the city. I learned everything I ever knew about divorce law in that case. After that challenging experience, I decided I wanted to do more and more of that kind of work. I started building a clientele. All of a sudden, I didn’t just represent women. I was representing men and I was representing important men and women. I was carrying more than my weight in bringing in business to the firm.
I learned the divorce landscape and decided that I wanted to help people go through divorce with dignity. I didn’t want to be a killer. I wanted to be somebody who actually helped people see their better angels and treat their spouses fairly. That approach became the foundation for the law firm I started to build. I wanted to build the best domestic relations firm in the city. Over the years, more and more clients came in and we hired more and more lawyers. I retired about five years ago. The law firm is still going strong and still has a wonderful reputation.
I’m very proud of that achievement and feel very lucky again. That was another example where I was there at the right time. In 1972, the domestic relations law was drastically changed. For the first time in the District of Columbia, the concept of equitable distribution was memorialized into law. Women would be recognized as equal partners to men in the distribution of property and in other issues of family law. Women’s contributions as wives and mothers would be valued financially. It was a wonderful time to start building a practice. I’m very proud of my practice and I’m very proud that our approach has taken a permanent foothold in the way family law should be practiced.
One of the most difficult challenges facing working women is how to balance family and career. Young lawyers being required to bill 2000 hours a year and travel from home on four-week trials are practices that must be changed if the profession is to become more family friendly. It has always been a challenge with no good answers. The legal profession has not figured it out yet, but there have been some excellent initiatives undertaken in the past few years.
The profession has made some necessary changes because of the Covid 19 virus. Some of those changes using virtual hearings and meetings might be adopted permanently. Hopefully, these new changes might help us examine how to make the profession more family friendly and less motivated by greed.