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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ellen W. Gerber, February 18 and March 24, 1992. Interview C-0092. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Advocating for women's issues in law

Gerber talks about how her experiences in law school and as a lawyer for Legal Aid led her to believe even more firmly in the importance of women's issues. In particular, she focuses on offering advice to young women becoming lawyers, arguing that in addition to belonging to the regular bar, they should also embrace women's organizations, such as the North Carolina Association for Women Attorneys, which she helped to found. In addition, she describes what she sees as issues of particular important to women in the law, such as cases about family and parenting.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ellen W. Gerber, February 18 and March 24, 1992. Interview C-0092. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

What about any advice for a young female attorney entering the legal profession?
Well, we haven't talked about one area, and that relates to this advice and that is, law schools almost all have women in law organizations. I think they're very important. The fact that we have almost 50% women in law schools, does not obviate the need to have a group that you can identify with and start building systematic ties. I am a big, big believer in being part of the regular bar, you know, I go to bar meetings, I've taken part, I serve on committees, you know I think that's important for anybody and it's part of service. And, you know, I believe that if you're a professional, that you have to relate to your profession as an institution in addition to doing your work for your clients. But the need for people to focus on women's issues is still there. Sexism has not disappeared and the legal status of women, while it's improved a lot, there are still many things, many issues of importance, that are more important to women than to others. Choice is a good example. You know, issues of choice? Issues of family law, I mean God knows that in the next two decades we're going to be focusing on this issue, of when is a parent a parent. And while that of course is an issue for the male and the female, it is primarily a woman's issue, because its women who are bearing these kids, whether they're inseminated, or surrogate parents, or the person who wants the custody, and the child, you know, those are enormously interesting issues. Interesting lesbian issues, you know, what happens now when you've got two lesbians and one of them has a kid? I mean there are all kinds of lawsuits these days about visiting rights to these, you know, two lesbians getting together, and they decide, we'll have a kid, and one of them has it, and the other one thinks, I'm a co-parent, and then they split up. What are the rights and obligations of that co-parent? These are women's focused issues and they've got to be dealt with. And so, we need this now. In the years since I got out of law school, and I was part of this group, we founded the North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys and that group has become very vital over the years. It is an important group, it has lobbied the legislature-equitable distribution. I personally sat in Marissa Schoolmaker's office with another woman attorney and drafted the original legislation of that now. It was modified of course, but, you know, and I did that as then president of the North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys. We lobbied that issue successfully, and that was ours, the women attorneys, we're the ones that got that passed and there are other issues like that. In North Carolina up until a couple years ago, if you owned property in joint tenancy, the male was entitled to all of the rents and profits. It's absurd, you know, a man in jail could throw his wife out of the house and install his girlfriend, which is what happened in this state because the law gave him the right to control that home, so we got that abolished by legislative lobbying. That organization has been important to say on judges. It supports people who judge, endorsements and all kinds of things. My advice to women graduating from law school is to be active in organizations like that, both locally and state-wide. Don't say, I've made it, I'm here, I'm equal, there's no such thing as a woman lawyer, I'm a lawyer. I believe that in the logic, important sense, but in the political sense of getting the kind of solidarity and support that makes us count, that gives us a bigger voice than the legislature, that allows us to do something, you've got to have groups. I mean, that's why you have an AMA, you know, doctors are people too, right, but they have a strong lobbying organization in Congress, everybody does, and women don't have a lobbying organization, except for us. You know, we need to work on things like that, and so you can't come out of college, [and say] I made it, I wasn't discriminated, I got here on my own, I'm a bright young woman and I've got a career ahead of me, and why do I need women's organizations for? The answer is you need them because we open the doors to begin with, and we're going to open other doors, the battle isn't over and women have to learn that the same way that blacks have to learn it. Some of the most noted black activists I know mourn that their children are uninterested in these causes. They say, well, we don't have those laws that didn't allow us to walk on the side of the street, and you know, they're all gone, those Jim Crow laws. But the truth is, it isn't just laws, laws have to be interpreted, they have be enforced, they have to be changed, you know, its an evolving process that will never stop. And maybe in a century we'll have more equality than we do now, but we do not have it yet by a long shot. And these large numbers of very bright wonderful women graduating from law school owe it to their foremothers to keep on fighting for us, and that means banding together and getting in place to do that sort of thing. It means running for the legislature, it means really stepping out in front and realizing that in addition, and this is the kind of speech that the judges like to give to lawyers, you know, you owe service. When you get sworn in in the ceremony and in most counties, they have a big ceremony for everybody at once in the fall so, you know, 40, 50 lawyers get sworn in at once, and the presiding judge always makes nice speeches about service and stuff like that. Well, that's real. That is real. That is something lawyers, professionals have an obligation for service, maybe everyone does, but I can't speak to everyone. I think we would have a better country if we all were more community minded. But I would speak to the women and say, when you're coming out of law school remember that obligation of service, and if you don't care about women, who else is going to? So others may do something else, others may build houses for the poor, others may serve on corporate boards, and that's fine, I have nothing against that, and maybe women ought to do that too, but don't forget our special needs.