Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
December 16, 2000, Saturday, Late Edition -
NAME: Marcia D. Greenberger
SECTION: Section A; Page 12; Column
1; National Desk
LENGTH: 962 words
HEADLINE: PUBLIC LIVES;
Guiding the Battles of the
Women's Rights Movement
BYLINE: By TAMAR
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
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.
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
"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
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
December 16, 2000