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Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company  
The New York Times

December 16, 2000, Saturday, Late Edition - Final

NAME: Marcia D. Greenberger

SECTION: Section A; Page 12; Column 1; National Desk 

LENGTH: 962 words

Guiding the Battles of the Women's Rights Movement



IT was sheer woman power secretary power, actually -- that got Marcia D. Greenberger the job as the first full-time women's rights lawyer in Washington. Back in the early 1970's, the headiest days of the women's movement, the secretaries at the Center for Law and Social Policy went to the male lawyers who founded the group and presented a list of demands: They did not want to serve coffee anymore. They wanted raises. They wanted the center to start a women's rights project. And they wanted a female lawyer hired for it.

Enter Ms. Greenberger, two years out of the University of Pennsylvania law school and working, with something less than passion, as a tax lawyer in a private firm. Her first case at the center challenged a company policy excluding pregnancy from disability coverage, and paved the way for the Pregnancy Discrimination Act -- as well as Wednesday's decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that employers whose health plans cover other preventive care must also cover prescription contraceptives.

But that is skipping a quarter-century ahead of the story.

When Ms. Greenberger went to interview at the center, the male lawyers were not sure there was enough women's rights work to keep a full-time lawyer busy. She had no doubts, given the array of new federal antidiscrimination laws -- and her own experiences.

"Remember, I went to law school and looked for my first job at a time when there was no law giving women any right to equal treatment," said Ms. Greenberger, now 54, in her sunny office at the National Women's Law Center, which became independent from the Center for Law and Social Policy in 1981. "In law school, it was just accepted that they called on women when they got to the rape cases."

There were about 10 women in her class of 200, she said, and they were not allowed to live in the law student's dorm. But she got to know one dorm resident very well. The class was divided alphabetically, and Marcia Devins was in the same section as Michael Greenberger: They got married after second year. Mr. Greenberger now works at the Justice Department.

At graduation, he got a clerkship with a Washington judge, but the professors discouraged her from applying for one, telling her that most judges did not take women clerks, and no one would want a woman with a husband in another judge's chambers. Many law firms were none too eager, either.

"One firm told me that they wouldn't hire women lawyers, because Washington was not a safe city, they worked late hours, and they would feel just terrible if anything happened to a young woman going home," Ms. Greenberger said in her measured, lawyerly way. "I'm still sorry that it wasn't until I was out the door that I realized I should have asked what they did for all the women who worked there as assistants."

Ms. Greenberger, who grew up in Philadelphia, was always interested in social justice and policy. "My father was a teacher and my mother, as we say now, worked in the home," she said. "They were very politically aware. I grew up watching the McCarthy hearings. And I was completely swept away by John Kennedy. When I was finishing law school, I wrote to ask about jobs on Capitol Hill. But I didn't know anyone, I didn't know anyone who knew anyone, and I didn't even know enough to know I should try to make those connections."

These days, Ms. Greenberger has connections aplenty. Starting with that first case at the center, she put together a coalition of women's groups -- there were fewer then -- to support a union woman challenging General Electric's exclusion of pregnancy from disability coverage.

"Pregnancy discrimination was common back then," she said. "Pregnancy, or the capacity to become pregnant, was used as a reason not to hire women, or to give them lower pay. And not only did G.E. not cover disability for the recovery period after a normal pregnancy, it didn't even pay for women who were disabled from complications of pregnancy. Men injured in skiing accidents or bar brawls got disability, but G.E. said that pregnancy was unique, so different that it wasn't covered under Title VII's prohibition of sex discrimination in the workplace."

THE case went to the United States Supreme Court, which in 1976 sided with General Electric -- prompting such a furor that two years later, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. That law, this week, was the basis for the E.E.O.C.'s ruling on contraceptive coverage. And this time, too, Ms. Greenberger had put together a coalition of women's groups, health groups and civil rights groups to press the issue, laying the groundwork for this week's decision.

"I think women now understand that the law can protect them and that their child-bearing capacity is something positive, for which they should not be penalized," Ms. Greenberger said. "Women's rights have come a long way."

Of course, Ms. Greenberger and her causes have their critics. Business groups say that her efforts to mandate new insurance coverage costs too much and the Catholic Church and others who oppose abortion are natural opponents.

And while her two daughters -- Sarah, teaching in the Bronx, and Anne, in college at her parents' alma mater, Penn -- have broader opportunities than she did, Ms. Greenberger says, the job is by no means finished.

"We have to be very vigilant to defend the rights we've won," said Ms. Greenberger, who for two decades has shared the co-presidency of the Center with Duffy Campbell, an arrangement that lets both women do substantive law and administrative work.

The center now has a staff of 39, including 22 lawyers and -- Ms. Greenberger admits shamefacedly -- only one man.

He is a secretary? "Administrative assistant," she said.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Marcia D. Greenberger, a lawyer for women. (Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times)

LOAD-DATE: December 16, 2000

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