Movement Lawyers to the Core: The Legacy of NWLC’s Founders
After 45 years on the leading edge of the fight for women’s equality, our co-presidents, Nancy Duff Campbell and Marcia D. Greenberger, are stepping down today. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the legacy they’ve established as I prepare to step into the role of President and CEO here at the National Women’s Law Center, remembering all the large and small ways they’ve positioned us at the Center— and the women’s movement more broadly — to persist in these trying times. It has been the great honor of my career to work with, learn from, and be deeply in the fight to advance and protect opportunities for women and girls with Marcia and Duffy. I’ve drawn so much encouragement and strategic insight from them over our last 12 years working together.
The National Women’s Law Center was born of Duffy and Marcia’s ability to improvise in what was then a brand new field of practice, combining their formidable intellect, command of the law, and deeply rooted commitment to gender equality for girls and women of all walks of life.
After graduating from law school and becoming the first woman lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale, Marcia was hired by the Center for Law and Social Policy to lead its Women’s Rights Project in 1972. Her first assignment was to determine whether there was enough work to keep one lawyer busy full-time working on women’s rights. Unsurprisingly, she had more than enough to do. The Women’s Rights Project initially focused on three areas: education (and the newly passed Title IX), employment, and health care (especially relevant thanks to the then-new Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade).
Around the same time, Duffy was hard at work teaching law, including helping none other than a lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsburg teach some of Columbia University’s first classes on women and the law. Duffy met Marcia after moving to Washington, D.C., where she taught at Catholic University and later Georgetown before joining Marcia at the Women’s Rights Project. Duffy’s expertise on public benefits, women and the military, and other relevant issues ensured that the rights and interests of low-income and service-connected women would be key to the work of the project, which Marcia and Duffy spun off into the independent National Women’s Law Center in 1981.
From the beginning, their work was rooted both in defining and interpreting the law through a women’s rights lens and in collaborating with like-minded advocates in a variety of contexts beyond the courtroom. Whether by bringing groundbreaking cases, influencing policymakers, or partnering with other organizations to wage public awareness campaigns to shift the culture in favor of women’s interests, finding multiple ways to advance our mission of equality has always been central to what we do at NWLC. Movement lawyers to their core, it’s no accident that many of the most significant legal advancements for women over the last 45 years bear Marcia and Duffy’s fingerprints.
Though America’s promise of equality is still unfulfilled, we who are working toward equality stand on much stronger footing thanks to the legal theories and precedents they developed and won. As we fight for women’s bodily autonomy, we build on their successful pursuit of legal protections for poor and institutionalized women who were subject to coercive and involuntary sterilization. As we fight for the rights of girls and LGBTQ youth to learn free of discrimination, violence, and harassment, we build on the numerous ways they defined and strengthened the mandates of Title IX. As we fight for workplace justice, we build on their expansion of legal protections and remedies under Title VII and other anti-discrimination laws, and on their success in opening thousands of military and construction jobs to women. Attempting to catalogue all of the legal and cultural victories Duffy and Marcia have helped secure for women would literally take days, but it must be said: these two are powerhouses, and we all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
These are hard times, to be sure. Every day, we see evidence of how bigotry, misogyny, and inequality in many forms still holds too many of us back. But when I feel discouraged, I think about how much we’ve already overcome, thanks to the brilliance of women like our co-founders. Their longstanding dedication to the field of women’s rights, beginning in a time when even the concept of such a thing seemed novel or fringe, is a reminder that we are capable of using the law — and organizing with our peers across the movement — to forge new paths out of the dark woods of injustice. Thanks to them, I’m confident that someday in the future, we’ll look back on this time with pride, confident in the creative ways we harnessed our understanding of the law and policy, plus an unprecedented surge in activism, to push our mission and our movement forward.