Category Archives: Reggie program

RBG in ’72

Countless words have been, and will continue to be, written about the incomparable U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served on the high court for 27 years.

I will leave discussions of her tenure on the Court to others.

What I will do here is recount the one and only time I encountered her in person, at a law school conference, at a pivotal point in her career.  If you’re interested in learning about that encounter, please read on.

In September of 1972, I was a full-time faculty member at the University of Michigan (UM) Law School.  Notably, I was the only full-time faculty member who was a woman.

The law school had a desirable setting on the UM campus, whose multitude of elm trees were unfortunately denuded of leaves, thanks to Dutch elm disease. The law school buildings made up the stunning Law Quadrangle, featuring beautiful old buildings constructed in the English Gothic style.

My role on the faculty was to help first-year law students learn the basics of legal education:  how to analyze court rulings (the kind they would read in the books assigned to them in courses like Torts and Contracts); how to do their own research into case law; and how to write a readable legal document, like an appellate brief aimed at persuading an appellate court to decide in their favor.

I was one of four young lawyers hired to fill this role.  The three men and I each taught one-fourth of the first-year class.  As I recall, we got to choose our offices in the law school library, and I immediately chose a plum.  It was an enormous wood-paneled room with charming hand-blown stained glass windows.  One entered it via a stairway leading upstairs from the library’s impressive reading room.  I treasured my office and happily welcomed meeting with students there.  And I wonder, in light of renovations at the law school, whether that glorious office still exists.

At some point early that fall, I learned that a conference on “women and the law” would be held at the New York University School of Law in October.  This was a bold new area of law that most law schools didn’t consider worth their attention.  NYU was clearly an exception. 

The idea of the conference immediately grabbed my attention because I had a longstanding interest in its stated focus.  One reason why I had myself attended law school a few years before was that, beginning very early in my life, I was and remain concerned with achieving equity and justice, including equal rights for women.

This focus had led me to attend law school during the mid-’60s.  My first job was that of law clerk to a U.S. district judge in Chicago.  After finishing my clerkship, I became a practicing lawyer as a Reggie assigned to my first choice, the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau.  [I discussed the Reggie program in a blog post, “The Summer of ’69,” published on August 7, 2015.]

And so, three years earlier, in October of 1969, I had begun working on a lawsuit that had a significant bearing on women’s rights because it would challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’s restrictive abortion law. This law had an enormous impact on the lives of women, especially poor and non-white women.

I worked with Sybille Fritzsche, a lawyer with the ACLU in Chicago, who became my close friend.  Sybille and I spent months preparing our case.  We filed our lawsuit in February 1970, argued it before a three-judge federal court in September, and won a 2-to-1 ruling in our favor in January 1971.  (The ruling in that case, Doe v. Scott, and the events leading up to it, are the focus of a book I’m currently writing.  In the meantime, you can read about our case in historian Leslie Reagan’s prize-winning book, When Abortion Was a Crime.)

Now, in the fall of 1972, I learned about the conference at NYU.  Because I was extremely interested in attending it, I decided to ask the UM law school’s dean, Theodore St. Antoine, whether the school might send me to New York to attend it.  I thought I had a pretty persuasive argument:  I was the only full-time woman on the law school faculty.  Didn’t the dean think it would be a good idea to send me to represent UM at the conference? 

How could he say “no”?  Ted thought about for a moment, then gave his approval.  So off I went, my expenses paid by the kind patrons of UM. 

My hotel, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, located near NYU’s law school, had sounded appealing on paper, but it turned out to be something of a dump.  It suited me just fine, however, because I barely spent any time there.  I was too busy attending the conference sessions and, when I could, taking a short break to reconnect with a couple of law-school classmates and briefly sample life in New York City, a city light-years removed from less-than-exhilarating Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The conference, held on October 20-21, turned out to be a symposium sponsored by AALS (the American Association of Law Schools), “The AALS Symposium on the Law School Curriculum and the Legal Rights of Women.”  It featured a number of prominent speakers, mostly law professors and practicing lawyers who had turned their attention to “the legal rights of women” in areas like tax law, property law, and criminal law.  I attended most of these sessions, and each of them was excellent.

But the only session I was really excited about was a talk by someone named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  I was quite certain that I would relish hearing her talk, “Toward Elimination of Sex-Based Discrimination: Constitutional Aspects,” because the topic was right down my alley.

Looking back, I don’t think I knew anything about RBG at the time.  But when she was introduced (by NYU dean Robert McKay) and began to speak, I was riveted by every word she uttered.  She spelled out everything she had already done and planned to do to achieve gender-equity.

So although I was not already familiar with her, I knew immediately that she clearly was and would continue to be a brilliant leader in the field of women’s rights.  I filed her name away in my memory so I could follow whatever she would do in the coming years.  And I did just that, enthusiastically following the many astounding accomplishments she achieved after 1972.

Your image of RBG may be that of the frail, petite woman who took center stage in our culture in her 80s.  But the RBG I saw in 1972 was very different.  She was an amazingly attractive young woman of 39.  You can see photos of her at that time in The New York Times of September 18 (in Linda Greenhouse’s long review of her life and career) and in a recent issue of TIME magazine (Oct. 5-12, 2020). Although much has been made of her short stature (one I share), she was so very energetic and focused that one quickly forgot how small she was.

It turned out that she had attended Harvard Law School about a decade before I did.  Like her, I’ve been called a “trailblazer” and a “pioneer,” and I also confronted gender-bias at every turn throughout my life.  My path was only a bit less rocky than hers:  My class at HLS included the whopping number of 25 women in a class of 520, while hers had only 9.

I’ve since learned that October 1972 marked a pivotal time in RBG’s career.  She had just switched her teaching position from Rutgers Law School to Columbia Law School (a considerable upgrade).  And she had just assumed another new position:  Director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, a project she had helped to found a short time before. 

So I’m left wondering…did she know about the case Sybille (an ACLU attorney in Chicago) and I brought in February 1970, a case that put a woman’s right to reproductive choice front and center?

RBG was an ardent supporter of reproductive rights during her tenure on the Supreme Court.  She discussed her views on abortion and gender equality in a 2009 New York Times interview, where she said “[t]he basic thing is that the government has no business making that choice for a woman.”

But I know that she had also stated that she wasn’t entirely happy with the way in which Roe v. Wade gave every woman in the U.S. that choice by bringing cases like Doe v. Scott in the federal courts.  She stated that she would have preferred that the argument had been made, over time, in each state’s legislature, with the right to choose being gradually adopted in that way rather than in one overriding court ruling that included every state.

Notably, on the 40th anniversary of the court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, she criticized the decision because it terminated “a nascent democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws” that might have built “a more durable consensus” in support of abortion rights.

She had a point.  A democratic movement to liberalize abortion laws would have been the ideal route, and might have been a less contentious route, to achieving abortion rights throughout the country. 

But I think her position was influenced by her own life story. 

It stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that in April 1970, she was living and working in New York, where the state legislature had passed a new law allowing abortion, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had signed it on April 11, 1970.  New York became only the second state in the U.S. (after Hawaii) to permit abortion, and only a few other states had carved out any sort of exception to what was otherwise a nationwide ban on abortion.

RBG may have optimistically believed that other states would follow New York’s lead.  But history has proved otherwise.

If women had waited for each of the 50 states to accomplish the goal of women’s reproductive choice, I think we’d still have many states refusing to enact laws allowing choice.  In support of my view, I ask readers to consider the situation today, when some states are trying to restrict abortion so frenetically, with or without achieving a complete ban, that they’re now simply waiting for a far-right conservative Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Whether or not RBG was aware of what was happening in the courtrooms of Chicago in 1970, I think I could have persuaded her that Sybille and I were doing the right thing.  

By advocating that the federal district court hold that the restrictive Illinois abortion law was unconstitutional, and persuading the court to decide in our favor, we achieved our goal of saving the lives and health of countless women who would have otherwise suffered from their inability to obtain a legal and medically safe abortion.

What greater achievement on behalf of women’s rights could there have been? 

I like to think that, after hearing my argument, RBG would have approved.

Hooray for Hollywood! Part I

As a lifelong film buff (OK, since I was about 4), I have great fondness for much that Hollywood (and foreign cinema) has produced.  Each year I try to see a number of new films and re-watch some of the old ones.

During the past year, I never got around to seeing most of the blockbusters that dominated the box office. According to the online publication The Verge, Disney produced an unprecedented 80 percent of the top box-office hits in 2019.

Thanks to its purchase during the last decade of Marvel Entertainment (2009) and Lucasfilm (2012), Disney films have included franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel hits, in addition to popular animated films like Frozen and Frozen 2.  The result:  Disney films have surpassed many other films at the box office.

But I don’t pay a lot of attention to box-office success.  I’m far more focused on seeing films that have something to say to me. This year my clear favorite was Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

Once Upon a Time, a Quentin Tarantino film, is not only a fabulous depiction of Hollywood in 1969, but it also related to me and my life in a number of ways.

Spoiler alert:  If you haven’t yet seen this film, DO NOT read the ending of this blog post, where I write about the Manson murders.

First, about the film itself:  It’s been called a “buddy picture,” and in many ways it is.  In two stellar performances, Leonardo DiCaprio (playing the fictional Rick Dalton) and Brad Pitt (playing fictional Cliff Booth), are indeed buddies.  Rick is a fading former star of a Western TV series, trying to make a comeback in Hollywood, while Cliff is his longtime stunt double.  By 1969, with Rick’s star on the wane, Cliff spends much of his time driving Rick from place to place.  Both are struggling to survive in a Hollywood that has changed from the one they knew.

Weaving fiction and fact throughout the film, Tarantino uses both humor and violence to depict the end of an era.  In this love letter to 1960s Hollywood (which has earned positive reviews by most top critics on Rotten Tomatoes and garnered numerous awards and nominations), he embeds specifics of popular culture and real places in 1969 LA into the film.

 

The story takes place during two days in February and one day in August of 1969.  Notably, Rick Dalton’s home is right next door to the home of minor film star Sharon Tate (married to director Roman Polanski) in a posh section of western LA, Benedict Canyon.

In this film, Tarantino also skillfully blends in the ugly story of the Charles Manson “family.”

Re-creating in many ways the world that I lived in at about the same time, even if he himself did not, Tarantino provoked a cascade of intensely vivid memories for me.  Here’s why:

 

 

I left Chicago in August 1970 and moved to the Westwood neighborhood on the west side of LA, where I rented a cheerful furnished apartment within walking distance of UCLA.

I had moved my “Reggie Fellowship” from the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau to a health-law related Legal Services office that was located at UCLA Law School.  Reggies were predominantly young lawyers who opted to work on behalf of the poor rather than toil in a corporate law firm.  (Please see my more detailed description of the Reggie program in an earlier post, “The Summer of ’69,” published on August 7. 2015.)

Westwood and Westwood Village (the commercial area in Westwood, adjacent to UCLA), loom large in my memory.  I met my husband-to-be (I’ll call him Marv) on the UCLA campus in October 1970, six weeks after I arrived.  Before we met, we had both rented separate apartments in the same apartment building located on the fringe of the campus. We soon began dating, and my memory bank is filled with countless memories related to our courtship and marriage that year.

My new location was very close to much of what happens in the Tarantino film only one year earlier.  So when he replicates things from that time, I recall seeing and hearing a lot of what looked like them myself.

Examples:  Street signs, ads painted on bus-stop benches, movie posters, commercials, and music. (Some of these are Tarantino’s own inventions.)

Probably the best example:  Sharon Tate goes to see herself in a film at a movie theater in Westwood Village.  During the year that I lived in Westwood, I saw many films at the movie theaters in Westwood Village.  (Seeing “Love Story” with Marv in one of them in December 1970 was especially memorable, and I plan to write about it in a future blog post.)

Another example:  A scene in the movie is set at the famous LA restaurant called Musso & Frank Grill.  Marv and I were both aware of its fame, and during that year we sought it out and dined there one special night.

One more thing:  The stunning area where Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski lived next door to the fictional Rick Dalton (Benedict Canyon) is in western LA, not far from Westwood and very close to BelAir.  Marv and I not only lived in Westwood, but we also celebrated our wedding luncheon at the charming BelAir Hotel.

Then there’s the Manson family storyline in the movie.  I learned about the Manson murders during a weekend in New York City.  I was spending part of the summer of 1969 at the Reggie training program at Haverford College, near Philadelphia, and I traveled from Philly to NYC one weekend in August

During trips to NYC, I often stayed with a close friend and a law-school classmate (I’ll call her Arlene).  Although Arlene was planning to be out of town that weekend, she invited me to stay in her 86th Street apartment on the East Side of Manhattan without her.  It was a great opportunity to live by myself as a quasi-New Yorker, and I decided to do it.

Returning to her apartment on Saturday evening, I picked up the Sunday New York Times and was shocked by a headline spelling out the startling discovery of the Manson murders.

At that time, I was still living in Chicago, but I had briefly lived in LA when I was 12 and always liked to follow any news arising there.  So I was riveted by the Manson story and read the paper from cover to cover.

When Tarantino decided to weave this story into the rest of his film, he did what he’d done in Inglourious Basterds and changed the real ending to a much different one.

Watching Once Upon a Time, I was terribly nervous as the film approached its ending.  I knew how the real story turned out, and I didn’t know exactly how this film would portray it.  But what a departure from reality Tarantino created!  The shocking ending to the film includes imaginative violence that is so over-the-top that it’s almost humorous.  Overall, the ending is a clever re-imagining of the fate of the Manson family and a much happier resolution of what happened to their victims.

Although the new ending was violent in its own way, creating an exciting piece of filmmaking, I left the theater in a much sunnier frame of mind than I would have if Tarantino had re-created the actual massacre that took place in 1969.

 

In sum, Once Upon a Time is, to my mind, an absorbing and a fascinating film.  For me, it was one of the best films of 2019.

 

I plan to write again about Hollywood films that have been relevant to my own life.  Part II will begin to explore classic films that have done just that.