Patricia King

“It is So Important to Preserve the History.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, July 10, 2020

JW:  We can start with your name, place, and date of birth.

PK:  Patricia King, and I was born June 12th, 1942 in Norfolk, Virginia.

JW:  What was your life like before you heard about or understood discrimination against women?

PK:  First of all, I grew up in Norfolk. I was raised by a woman who raised two children by herself. A woman who decided she’d leave her husband because he was not a good influence on her children. This was in the 40s and that was a courageous act. She always felt different because women did not leave their husbands in those days. She was raising two girls. She was like my grandmother, who lost her husband to tuberculosis when my mother was five and she raised four kids.

So, my background was being around very strong women, understanding that their lives were even harder because they were women. So, I like to say that I was a feminist long before we had first wave, second wave, etc. I was able to leave Norfolk during a period of segregation. In my senior year in high school the Norfolk schools were closed, and I was not sure I would graduate. They were reopened. I did graduate, and I went off to a women’s college in Norton, Massachusetts. That was a different kind of experience.

There were five African-American girls on the entire campus. It was New England vs. the South, but in some ways not very different. The transition was quite hard. I call it culture shock. It took me a while to recover. In those days, Black women were given singles their first year. Jewish girls were even given singles, or they roomed with other Jewish girls and the same for Catholic girls because New England schools were difficult during this period.

I recovered with the help of my mother. I did not do well my first year, I lost my scholarship. I thought I was a failure and my mother told me to go back and try. My uncle put a mortgage on the house. With that backing, and my mother’s strength always telling me to keep going, I graduated. I was president of college government and I ended up coming to Washington. My first job was in the Department of State. I was an intern. It was their first effort to hire women and to hire African-Americans.

One of my jobs initially was to read files and I was struck that the Foreign Service officers wives were rated for being wives. I learned later in the Defense Department, as you rose into the higher ranks of the military, the wives were also rated. I was stunned about that. Then I decided I wanted to go to law school. I started at night and I liked it a lot at Georgetown. I applied to Harvard, they made me repeat the first year, that was their policy at that time. I went to Harvard Law School and I graduated in 1969.

JW:  How many women were in your class?

PK:  We had the largest number of women up to that date. We were 39 out of a class of 500 and they were patting themselves on the back for that. Harvard was one of the last law schools to admit women, long after Yale. It was a difficult atmosphere. But if I’d had any doubt that I wanted to be a feminist, Harvard convinced me otherwise. It was a very difficult situation to be in during those times. But it did make you tough.

JW:  Tell me something that was difficult.

PK:  “Ladies Day”. Harvard was famous for two of the Property professors, and I had one of them. He made you sit in the front of the room and he asked you questions that related to what women could obtain following the death of husbands. At Harvard, all first-year students had to be in clubs in order to do debates, to appear in order to make an argument. I was asked to join a club, I did. They assigned upperclassmen to assist you and help you and the second-year student assigned to help me kept saying, now don’t cry. That was what the atmosphere was like.

But it was also difficult because the first year I was there, there were three Black women in my class. We were invited along with the Black men to meet individually with the vice dean. The purpose was to offer us special assistance. When I went into the office, I asked what the criteria was for asking that question? And he told me they were making this offer to all of the African-American students. I told him I didn’t want to be there. He didn’t know anything about me, he just decided to do this on the basis of race. So, I didn’t go. Some of my fellow students thought that was crazy.

My view about that was, that’s fine if you want to do it, that’s great. It also had a lot of pushback because Harvard is a very competitive place and when some of the White students found out that this offer had been extended to us that became a point of antagonism. It happened anyway, whether you joined the program, or you didn’t. The very idea that it existed and that we had access to professors by itself created a harsher environment and existence for three years. But I made it, as did most of the women in my class.

Being both Black and female, I got a lot more job offers than women who were, I thought, smarter than I was. I got offered some law firms which was quite unusual then, but I decided that’s not what I wanted to do. I became a special assistant to the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I spent two years there, this was just the beginning of trying to change rules, new advances in law for women. The EEOC had not finished drafting its sex discrimination guidelines, but it was in the process.

Then I went to be the deputy director for Civil Rights at HEW. It was the very beginning of affirmative action in higher education for women. It was a very difficult place to be in because it was a Republican administration.

JW:  I’m sorry to interrupt again, but were you able to help write some of the rules?

PK:  Actually, the rules I remember were the first drafts of Title IX. I got to work on it. The work had already started with Berkeley and doing affirmative action programs. This was all just the beginning. It was convincing people that certain things needed to be done before you got to the point of actually writing the rules and regulations. Title IX was a law so the very first step was to actually sit down to draft regulations.

JW:  Title IX says you can’t discriminate on the basis of sex in education but what did that mean?

PK:  They’re still fighting about it. We’ve taken it to a different level in terms of harassment of women in higher education and what kind of processes are required for fairness both to the woman and to the accused. The rules just changed recently.

JW:  Did this law apply to athletics?

PK:  That was the biggest argument then. They argued that for every man’s team there’d be a women’s team, you can imagine all of the variations. But in retrospect, that seems odd and easy compared to the kinds of conversations today which go to procedures and the fairness to men as well as women. I took a year’s leave from HEW and went to Georgetown Law School to teach. They wanted me to be the director of the Office of Civil Rights. I didn’t think that was a good idea for me in a Republican administration. So, I decided to stay at Georgetown.

I went to tell the secretary that I would not be coming back, I think he didn’t expect I would, and he asked if I’d like to join the first Bioethics Commission in the United States. It was a commission set up by Congress as a consequence of several debates. One was Tuskegee, which was revealed to the public in 1970. The Tuskegee Syphilis experiment was conducted in Tuskegee, Alabama, on black men who were followed for about 40 years to see whether they got syphilis or not.

They were deceived: they misunderstood why they were in a study. They did not receive treatments, after they became available, as members of the study. They did not consent to this study. Tuskegee has become the touchstone for minorities involved in medical research. To this day African-Americans are very reluctant to participate in clinical studies in the area of health.

Today I appreciate that we need to participate in those kinds of studies despite our fears, because we need diversity in research. Women were excluded from research during the same period. It wasn’t determined until the 80s that we need female participation in research for the same reason today that African-Americans need it. That is research done with men was not always helpful to women, there are a range of differences there.

The second big issue was whether we could do research on tissues from fetuses. If a woman had an abortion, could she consent in advance to research on the tissue that resulted from the abortion? In 1974 this was enormously controversial. Those were the hot button issues that led to the formation of the commission.

This is a very famous commission, it issued something called the Belmont Report. The Belmont Report has become the charter document for the broad principles that are utilized in research on human subjects. And the recommendations of the commission became federal regulations. We took a very conservative stance on fetal tissue, but the fetal tissue did not go away. I’ll come back to that.

JW:  What do you mean by conservative position?

PK:  A conservative position meant that we basically eliminated most of the fetal tissue research. Prior to this time, it was controversial, but it was done to help pregnant women who had issues with the pregnancy, in the interest of fetal health. And what we could learn for desired offspring. I did that for four years and it changed the trajectory of my life.

I concentrated on my teaching such as family law, which was just emerging in 1970 in new ways with the first No Fault Divorce Act in California. So, I taught family law, which was marriage and divorce. I taught the law of children and families, and I taught a seminar on bioethics. I did that for most of the time I was in law school.

In my early years I did writings on the reproductive rights of women. My big article for tenure was about Roe vs. Wade. I am the third woman to gain tenure at Georgetown. I am the first African-American to be tenured in the university. It was not an easy life. I have a lot of scars. I made a lot of good friends and a lot of people helped. After I wrote the article I was invited to speak in many places on those issues. I didn’t realize I had outsiders sitting in on my classes, those who were opposed to abortion.

Letters were going to the president of the university and he sent me a copy of one of the letters he wrote in return, affirming my right to speak, my right to teach. For a Jesuit institution it was extraordinary and extraordinary for the times. That’s a good story. And the bad stories relate to the ways that women can be harassed. They relate to the responses of students, particularly male students, being taught by a female professor who gave grades.

Looking back, I think that the changes came pretty rapidly. We started to hire more women, we started to admit more women as students. So, I’m talking about a really discrete period when it was really tough, where male colleagues didn’t think you were their equal. My friends from that period are all the women who came early because we used to get together often to exchange what was happening and gain strength from each other. One of those women became the first dean. Georgetown was one of the first schools in the country to have a woman Dean. We laugh about some of the bad times when we talk to each other. I think I’ve caught you up.

JW:  You have. Would you mind sharing about the time you were asked to testify in Congress about the person who might have been the first attorney general under Clinton?

PK:  I was not invited to testify against her. What I did, with respect to the woman who would have been the first attorney general, is that I was really appalled that the nominee had not paid the Social Security taxes, unemployment, taxes for her household employees. I didn’t know her, by the way. But I was appalled at the fact that she thought she could be attorney general and not do what the law required. So, I wrote an op ed piece for The Washington Post later repeated in The Wall Street Journal.

The title of that piece is She Broke the Law, that was the first statement. I argued about the importance to working class women of getting Social Security when they were older and having access to unemployment compensation. Those things come from my childhood. I grew up in a working-class home and I understood that working class women had lots of obstacles to overcome.

They also came from my time at the EEOC. I remember traveling with the chair, the EEOC, to hearings against AT&T in New York and listening to all the women who were telephone operators testify about what was happening to them and their employment. It got me on TV, it’s my one claim to fame. I had to debate Lloyd Cutler, and I was terrified, on ABC. I remember going on the news hour and being interviewed alongside a very prominent woman journalist whom I will not name, and she argued against me.

I went through all of my arguments again and when we left the set, she said, you’re right you know. I wasn’t angry. When you think about the role of women in those years, you could only make progress in groups, by being a member of a group and using all the expertise that women were beginning to develop. Then along comes this person who says, but this is not the right one. It was a done deal; she wasn’t going to go through. So, I appreciated that she looked at me and said, you’re right. But there were a lot of angry women out there who did not know me and who had not heard the argument, et cetera.

JW:  And of course, she did not go through in the end.

PK:  No, she did not go through, but other women did. And as the world would have it, the second woman was actually my law school classmate. She and I had a room together when we were in Washington for the summer. She’s now a federal judge in New York. We finally got a woman attorney general and what was coming through, I think, is that if you are female, if you are Black, and if you have a working-class background, life is tough.

I’ve talked to other women who have succeeded because I’ve been around women enough who think the way I think of all colors and you’re always juggling who you are. You have to figure out where it fits in. I was peculiarly sensitive to issues of class and issues of race. So, I could be a woman and deal with those issues most of the time or focus my attention. I did a lot of work in reproductive rights, obviously. I focused a lot on lower income women, White or Black. And that’s sort of the story of my life, picking my way through these kinds of issues, working where I thought it would be helpful.

Judge Gladys Kessler called me here in Washington, D.C., she had found, among others, an organization for women judges. She asked if I would put together programs for women judges on issues like dying. There are other issues that we’re developing for women besides abortion, fetal tissue being one, the fetal tissue transplantation being another. We started to talk about access to reproductive technologies, focused on women so storage of eggs, I lived through that whole period.

These were all new issues for judges. All judges. I got to know lots of women judges because I organized these conferences, spoke at these conferences. That’s the most active contribution I can think of other than being on boards where I actually spent a lot of time concentrating on introducing people to issues that affected women in new ways.

JW:  Now the fetal tissue issue has evolved.

PK:  The next issue became could you use fetal tissue to help with transplantation and to do the research on and treatment for Parkinson’s disease. I remember being in a room at NIH over several times arguing that women could consent to their tissue being used for this purpose. Others kept arguing it could only come if she had a miscarriage and some argue that not at all.

I didn’t completely lose that argument, but all the women who were sitting in the room who were at NIH became my friends because I feel so strongly about women’s right to control their own bodies. So, from fetal tissue transplantation the current controversy involves mitochondrial DNA and whether a woman can get DNA or the egg of a third woman, take out the mitochondria, put it in her ova and she can give birth to a child that does not have the disease.

Women are being challenged in their reproductive senses in lots of ways. Another way is, can we do research on embryos? I co-chaired the first panel at NIH on embryo research and we did such a good job that President Clinton decided it was too hot to touch. We proposed the guidelines to regulate this research on a Wednesday and by Friday, he had disavowed it. It didn’t stop embryo research. We do embryo research. At every stage from embryo research to stem cell research, the issue about women has risen because we were talking about women’s reproductive issues in one way or another.

There was a committee chaired by a very good friend of mine who’s a public health person. We may have forgotten that I mentioned this earlier, that women couldn’t be involved in research at all in the 80s. The first woman director and last woman director of NIH decided that areas that involved women from breast cancer had to do research with women in order to improve the health of women and increase the knowledge of women. There were several meetings at NIH where women sat at the table who argued for the first steps in this direction and the rules were changed.

Took us a while. The rules were changed by 1990, although they started before that, women could participate in research, not just to further their own health as a group, but that women could participate in research, period. African-Americans followed women in the health arena in terms of trying to change the rules so that there could be broader participation in trials but more targeted research on issues that confronted them. And that has happened.

JW:  Could you talk about when some of the women’s groups representatives asked you to testify when now Justice Thomas was up for consideration?

PK:  This sort of explains a lot about living always conscious of the three aspects of yourself. So, because I had worked at EEOC, not when Thomas was there, I had background knowledge about his leadership, because once there at EEOC, you know lots of people. Watching his nomination, I was really upset when I read the articles about his upbringing and what happened to his sister and him.

His family broke up, he went to live with his grandfather, who had his own independent small business. He went to Catholic schools. His sister became the caregiver. When a family member was very ill, she had to leave her job and go on welfare to take care of a family member. When I read what he said about her, I was really angry. And this was all very private. So, when I was asked by a member of a women’s organization, would I be willing to testify against him? I said, absolutely because I feel strongly about this.

I was on a panel with Judy Lichtman and Marcia Greenberg and I testified against him. I made the argument about the differential treatment between male and female, that’s the opening part of what I talked about. And then I went on to talk about his views about abortion and choice for women. It caused quite an uproar. My husband drove in from George Mason, where he taught, to watch me testify. And when I finished, because I was a nervous wreck, when I finished, he came up to me and he said, “You did it.” I said, “What did I do? What did I do?”

He said, “You changed the mind of the senator. I could see it. It was the senator from Alabama.” He said, “Because you got him to look at it a different way.” I testified during the period when the NAACP was still supporting Thomas. One of the things I had not counted on when I gave this testimony was that African-Americans would react really badly to me. Most people didn’t know anything about him except that he was Black.

My mother who still lived in Norfolk, was ostracized when she went to church that Sunday. Shame on me because when you take your own stands, you don’t understand how it’s going to affect those who love you and who care for you, who have to end up taking a hit. And it made a real difference. And it’s completely forgotten but recorded because two days later the hearings started with Anita Hill.

It taught me to manage these three aspects of myself: that I could do it. I’m not naturally a joiner, so I think this was easy for me and I am naturally an introvert. I didn’t have to be in an organization, and I didn’t have to take positions in women’s organizations. I didn’t understand this then, when I started studying the women’s movement in some detail and going back to the 19th century, I understood then that this feeling about being African-American and female, and also who came first in advancement and who should not come first, has a long history.

I’m glad I actually didn’t know that history at the time. When I was the deputy director of Civil Rights at HEW, I had to go to a women’s conference in Cambridge. This meeting was being picketed by mostly, not entirely, African-American men. And it was the argument that we shouldn’t be dealing with women’s issues now. This is the time to deal with racial issues. This is like the early 70s and I was so angry because I had to cross that picket line to get into this meeting. And I was so angry.

It’s like all these stories of my life that I had to oppose Black men who were making this argument because their argument was not big enough for me. That’s the way I saw it. I went into my meeting and I have never forgotten because it confirmed that I was going to have to make my calls for myself in terms of what I believed in and what I cared about. The Clarence Thomas issue for some stamped me as a person who didn’t care about race, which is ridiculous because I’m Black and I’m never going to be anything different and going through life I just had a different perspective.

I think we’ve come a long way in managing intersectionality, which is what they now call it. All of us have come a long ways in terms of trying to manage what it is like. Sometimes it’s class, sometimes it’s race or ethnicity but we have to be broad enough to take those into account as we go forward as women. We span everything and I think we’ve made progress since I was still in action. I think that the funding the Women’s Law Center received to help working class women deal with harassment is one of the biggest breakthroughs and sets a path for how we might think about some of these issues as we go forward. As we go forward it’s important to recognize there are lots of women out in this country who are really in difficult circumstances.

JW:  You said you retired, but you are doing some projects, is that correct?

PK:  That’s correct. Having spent all my years in bioethics and working on a lot of issues, I was elected to the National Academy of Medicine. I joined pretty early on for women, that was another stronghold of men. And right now, I’m working on two committees. One is a standing committee of all of the academies to take a look and answer questions on the Covid pandemic. The pandemic has affected people of color disproportionately in this country.

I’m also at the forefront, on a committee, to try to design standards for proceeding in a new area of research called research on organoids and chimeras. It’s research focused on some diseases of the brain like Parkinson’s and other types of diseases where the thought is that we can take organoids, which are tissues, small cells and learn something if we put them into research with animals. It’s in its beginning stages, it’s very controversial where it is. I don’t have any idea how it would come out, but I enjoy working at the National Academy for this reason because I learn so much and I meet so many interesting people.

I am on the board of an ESOP, which is an employee owned company that’s been around for 50 years, longer. It does research on social issues. So, they do research for which they’re paid in the areas of health and education, disability, I could go on and on, it’s very similar to non-profit organizations that you probably are familiar with. But this is just an ESOP so it’s employee owned, but it’s for profit. I really have enjoyed being on their board because I keep up with everything that’s happening in the social welfare area, because that’s the kind of work that they do. In order to do their work, they might also be considered a digital company. So that’s what I’m doing. And the rest of the time, I am being a grandmother.

JW:  Oh, how lovely. Well, we certainly appreciate everything you have done for all three aspects of your life as you define yourself. Anything you want to add?

PK:  Oh, I just want just to thank you Judy for doing this work. It is so important to preserve the history and I am just tickled pink that I was asked to do this. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

JW:  Well, you’re very welcome.