Sylvia Roberts

January 6, 1933 – December 29, 2014

“Let’s do things that get us back to the real long-range view of women in power.”  – Sylvia Roberts, 2008

Salute to Feminist Lawyers, Harvard Club, NYC,  June 9, 2008

We were so young, and I just want to tell you that how I got involved with this. I read an article that a group of women in Washington were forming an organization and I could contact Kay Clarenbach because she was the one who was sort of in charge of membership along with and of course, Betty Friedan and Gene Boyer and the rest of the people who founded NOW. I immediately applied for membership. And I heard back from Kay that I could be on the lawyers committee.

The Lawyers Committee was about I think there were four people on the lawyers committee and Marguerite Riewoldt, whom we haven’t talked enough about, but is one of our foremothers here, put me on the Week’s case because I was so close. I was in Baton Rouge and that was in Georgia, so, well, of course. So anyway, we all know that Lorena Weeks was trying to do this completely subversive thing about getting a job inside of an office, working as a switchman, not outside, carrying heavy spindles and so forth.

And her case was already lost. I think maybe some of you know how daunting it is to take a case that you didn’t try and then you’re trying to get it overturned when it’s down the drain. So at any rate, we had a wonderful judge, had wonderful panel, really. But Frank Johnson got it. And he took out the loophole in Title seven,  which was called VFOQ, which said that employers could decide which were men’s jobs and women’s jobs.

Judge Johnson said “No. Women, like men, should have the chance to decide what jobs they can try out for. Romantic paternalism is dead.” So anyway, and that language has been quoted a lot and he was so wonderful. So then after the Week’s case, I started trying cases in various parts of the country where I had never been, such as Carbondale, Illinois. But the case that took most of our time was against the University of Pittsburgh.

And Fanny Goodwyn was with me there, along with another woman who was a homemaker. And that was our team against law firms that had floors and floors of lawyers. But we didn’t know any better. So, we just went on. I want to say it’s during that early phase we were talking about as women lawyers dividing up sectors of law, that maybe we could kind of dole out like WEAL would do the educational cases and NOW would do the employment cases.

And what I was really interested in was trying to fashion cases that got us to power. In other words, where did we have a pool of women, if they were only recognized, then they could go up the royal road like Kissinger, going from Harvard to industry to government. So that’s why I picked the University of Pittsburgh Medical School case. And that was a terrific effort. And I’ll always be touched by what Ruth Bader Ginsburg said when we were working at the Women’s Law Fund and various other places.

And she said, “Well, why don’t you just get some money so Sylvia could litigate some cases?” Because, of course, the cases that had been brought there sort of on a point of law and you don’t litigate it and develop a record. At any rate, that was just about the time that the tide turned, we got the chilling effect that made it so that you got punished if you went to court and didn’t win, you had to pay their attorney fees.

But at any rate, what I [am] now to the point of saying is that to me, the courts are not the arena right now. And I’m pleading, entreating, let’s get on the third wave. Let’s do things that get us back to the real long-range view of women in power. We don’t have enough women on the courts now. We’ve got to get a little bit farther back and we will. But we can’t abandon, we can’t just say, well, we got to wait for better times.

We’ve got to make better times. I would like to just say that if anybody in this room with all this energy and electricity that I can feel wants to work with me about the third wave, if I can be so conceited, but at any rate, I think the time is ripe for a vision of doing something with our legal talents. I don’t think it’s the courts. I think we can work out some other strategies. I think we can piggyback on some things that are already happening.

And I’m so anxious to hear from you and so honored to be here. Thank you.