By DONNA URSCHEL
The "Resourceful Women" symposium's keynote speakers, in a June 19 session called "Women and the Law," celebrated women lawyers and judges, litigation that improved the lives of women, and the Library's efforts to illuminate these advancements in women's history with the publication of its new guide, "American Women."
The speakers included U. S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, University of Iowa history professor Linda K. Kerber and Columbia Law School professor Patricia J. Williams.
"We are here to celebrate ‘American Women,' the Library of Congress guide to question-asking—a Harry Potter magical flashlight that enables us to see landscapes that have been concealed," said Kerber.
"It's not so long ago that libraries denied that they had women's papers or didn't know they had them, deftly hidden in family collections or archives of other organizations. So making it easier for these papers to deliver up their secrets is to participate in some of the most intellectually challenging work of citizenship—interpreting our past and understanding our present," she said.
In his welcoming remarks, Librarian James H. Billington said the Library is honored to be the repository of the professional and personal papers of O'Connor and Ginsburg. "Through their scholarship and generosity, our esteemed panelists this evening have contributed to the growth of the Library's legal collections," he said.
"As women's legal rights evolved, so have the Library's collections," said Billington. "Today the Law Library of Congress contains the largest body of U.S. federal and state law. Among its holdings are numerous treatises, statutes, digests of court decisions, law journals, and other current and historical information relating to women. The Library's general collections, rare books, and manuscript collections also contain excellent sources and material on the country's legal affairs, including the laws and court cases that have shaped women's status, rights, and freedoms over the course of more than three centuries."
Wendy Webster Williams, Georgetown University Law Center professor, served as session moderator and introduced O'Connor and Ginsburg. "Our justices, who were born within three years of each other in the 1930s, come from very different backgrounds and have traveled distinctly different pathways to the high court of our country."
O'Connor grew up in Arizona, near the border of New Mexico, on the Lazy B Ranch, riding horses. She attended Stanford University for both undergraduate work and law school. Ginsburg grew up in Brooklyn, riding subways, cabs and elevators. She attended Cornell University, started her law studies at Harvard, but finished them at Columbia.
Despite their differences, Williams said the justices shared a striking similarity. "Both graduated near the very top of law school classes and both had difficulty getting first jobs, even as they watched men with less impressive academic attainments get hired."
O'Connor spoke first but briefly, because she had to return to work. "In my own lifetime, I've witnessed a sea change in public attitudes about women," she said, and delineated the progress of women over the last 50 years.
"These changes have presented women with an unprecedented array of new blessings and burdens. On one hand, we have shed stereotypes that once branded us. On the other hand, women still must find the balance between our roles in the workplace and our biological realities of pregnancy and the practical requirements of raising families.
"All these experiences offer opportunities for our own further reflection about these issues as a nation. Accounts of experiences of American women will prove useful. That's where the Library of Congress comes in, and this wonderful project of documentation," she said.
Ginsburg, herself a historian of women in law, chose to tell the story of one woman, Burnita Shelton Matthews, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Federal District Court, who also had an interesting role in the construction of the Supreme Court building.
According to Ginsburg, Matthews, born in 1894 in Mississippi, wanted to study law, but found that no law school in the state accepted women. She moved to Washington, D.C., to work by day at the Veterans Administration and study law by night at the precursor to George Washington University. On weekends, she picketed the White House with the banner "Votes for Women."
When she finished law school, no law office in Washington would hire a woman. Not even the Veterans Administration, where she had worked so diligently, would give her a job as an attorney. So, she started her own practice. "She wasted no time on anger, resentment and self-pity," said Ginsburg.
Matthews represented the National Woman's Party, whose building in the 1920s was to be condemned to make room for the new U.S. Supreme Court Building. The government argued that the building was worthless and offered the Woman's Party a meager amount for condemnation.
"But exhaustive preparation carried the day," said Ginsburg. Matthews proved the 1815 building was historically important and won $400,000, the largest condemnation award the United States had yet paid.
Eventually Matthews was appointed to the federal bench by the Truman administration. She presided over major trials, including the prosecution of Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa.
"In 1980 I met and conversed with this truly great lady. She was growing hard of hearing, her eyesight was failing, but her spirit remained indomitable," said Ginsburg.
Next to speak was Kerber, who paid tribute to libraries and explored the changing gender connotations of citizenship. "Historians [make it] look like we come cheap, that we only need a laptop. We're not like physicists, who need expensive laboratories. But if we are to do our work, someone has to save the documents, someone has to commit the money to build, heat, and air-condition the libraries and archives."
She also thanked the Library for its new guide, "American Women": "I'm very grateful, on behalf of the community of historians, to the community of librarians and archivists who have made this possible."
Kerber devoted a large portion of her remarks to litigation that benefitted women. She described how women, a generation ago, realized they were governed by different rules and laws, a practice that deeply offended their sense of fairness. She cited in particular Reed vs. Reed, the landmark case of 1971, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an Idaho law that favored the appointment of a man over a woman to act as administrator of an estate. It marked the first time the court used the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to protect a woman's right to equal treatment under the law. The ACLU attorney at the time who argued the case before the court was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
"We have made great progress; we have much to do," Kerber said. "The larger message of feminism is that the work of justice is carried on by every one of us, in the moral choices we make as we go about our daily lives. Out of our lived experiences, we will shape the next question that we will put before Justices O'Connor and Ginsburg and their successors."
Patricia Williams, the final speaker of the evening, focused on the changing landscape of affirmative action, sexual harassment, and the interplay of race, gender and class in policy issues such as welfare and education. She praised the great legal and professional strides of women but warned of side effects.
"I think the very success of a generation of women and women of color has resulted in a new coding of stereotypes," she said. As women take on more positions of power, they are criticized for being too manly, which is a new form of harassment, she said. Another concern, she noted, is that many of her students at Columbia Law School come to her, "anxious as never before about how they should look, what they should wear."
Williams also spoke movingly of the 1991 murder of feminist legal scholar Mary Jo Frug, citing a misogynist parody of one of Frug's last published writings as an example of the harassment and stress that women continue to experience. She explained, "Their stress has become privatized, because they feel women risk legitimacy in talking about these stresses. Feminism has come to mean ‘just deal with it' and has been co-opted by some sort of masculine model of strong silent types who never cry." Williams suggested that historians document these kinds of secret stresses and the professional maladies cropping up among women.
Williams concluded her remarks by urging libraries to collect the ethnic press, such as the black media in which vibrant political conversations occur, and to archive e-mail, which captures a kind of collective consciousness and intimacy lacking in other documents, even in the personal correspondence of earlier decades.
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer in the Washington area.