Brenda Feigen assisted at the birth of the Women's Rights Project. In 1972, she was contacted by Mel Wulf, the legal director of the ACLU; Ruth Bader Ginsburg was looking for someone to direct the newly formed WRP with her. "It was a great honor," Feigen recalls. Still, she needed three weeks to think about the offer.
had just started Ms. magazine that month," Feigen explains, referring
to her joint venture with Gloria Steinem. As a result, Feigen consulted with
Steinem to decide where she was most needed. Ms. was intended as
an offshoot of the Women's Action Alliance, which the two had recently founded.
Steinem reassured her that others could fill her shoes at the magazine, but
no one, at that time, could take her place at the ACLU -- Feigen's legal expertise
had already proved invaluable as legislative vice president of NOW. Upon receiving
that "blessing from Gloria," Feigen joined Ginsburg at WRP.
Feigen describes Ginsburg as "exceedingly thoughtful and very kind." Ginsburg
had no desire to designate anyone as a co-director or assistant director;
instead she and Feigen shared the title of director. Feigen describes Ginsburg
extraordinary human being," and emphasizes the differences between the two original
directors. "There's no way to sound like I'm not in awe of her brain and ability
to persuade people -- quietly. I tend to be much noisier."
Feigen and Ginsburg moved together into the bustling ACLU office. They found an unclaimed space across the hall, where they promptly hung a sign saying, "Women Working!" Once business was underway, "we knocked down a lot of barriers for women." In Frontiero
v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973), the first case that Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court, WRP advocated for the application of strict scrutiny to gender discrimination just as the concept applied to race discrimination.
Four Justices supported this view, one
vote shy of a majority. Through a series of decisions in the wake of Frontiero,
an intermediate standard of review was established, a standard requiring the
government to show that any sex classification it defended had a "substantial relationship" to an "important state interest." When Ginsburg herself became a member of the Supreme Court, she further elucidated the constitutional standard of review for gender discrimination, making clear that the government must prove "an exceedingly persuasive justification" to defend a law or policy that classifies on the basis of gender.
In describing Frontiero, where she served as co-counsel, Feigen expresses great respect for Ginsburg's advocacy. "It was brilliant," she gushes, "I've never heard an oral argument as unbelievably cogent as hers." Ginsburg spoke from memory, citing cases and speaking about women's history without ever turning to her notes or asking Feigen to hand her any information. "Not a single justice asked a question; I think they were mesmerized by her," Feigen declares. In the end, Ginsburg seemed physically drained by the effort. As Feigen left the courtroom with her, Ginsburg seemed hardly able to process directions to the airport shuttle, and Feigen escorted her back to New York. "Have you met Ruth?" Feigen asks, laughing. "Literally, her head is in the law, sometimes in the opera."
Other issues the original WRP directors pursued included fighting forced sterilizations, particularly for poor black women in the south. Many women had been forced to submit to the procedure or risk losing jobs or welfare benefits. Feigen remembers being "appalled" by the coercion. It was the flip side of abortion rights, she explains: the right to bear children. Feigen herself helped Senator Edward Kennedy's staff formulate federal regulation of sterilization procedures in the late 1970s, which specifically established consent requirements.
Shortly after the Women's Rights Project
was begun, the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project had been started to handle
cases pertaining to women's control over their bodies. (Roe
v. Wade was also
decided during this period, but it was not an ACLU case. Feigen states that
rather than arguing for a right to privacy that encompassed abortion rights,
she and Ginsburg would have advanced an equal protection argument, emphasizing
that women should have rights equal to men to control their bodies.)
In those years, WRP also advocated for leaves of absence for fathers, as
well as mothers, in the early months of parenthood. "We were very intent
on showing that discrimination against women hurts men as well," Feigen explains.
Ginsburg and Feigen practiced this theory in their family lives. "Both of
us agreed that we didn't want to deprive the fathers of our children of
the experience of being fathers -- or the children of having fathers involved
in their daily lives," Feigen explains. In fact, she recalls Ginsburg's annoyance
one day with officials at her son's school, who invariably called her at
work when he was sick or, more often, in trouble. Ginsburg told them that
day that her son had two parents. She would appreciate it if they would
alternate calls. That time, it was her husband's turn.
Feigen believed that ultimately, "in order to get women on a par with men, we needed the Equal Rights Amendment." Feigen's commitment to passage of the ERA as a top priority ultimately led her away from WRP and its focus on a litigation strategy. She describes her time with Ginsburg as an "extraordinary two and a half years." Feigen left the ACLU in the summer of 1974, touring the country to amass support for the ERA. She helped Gloria Steinem write her testimony on the issue for Congress, lending her legal expertise and moral support. Unfortunately, she also witnessed "the birth of a reactionary movement," led by Phyllis Schlafly and other anti-feminists, and the eventual defeat of the Amendment.
Retreating from full-time public advocacy, Feigen started a law firm with her husband. In her practice, Feigen represented several feminists, uncovering their FBI and CIA files under the Freedom of Information Act. To her surprise, many women's rights activists discovered that they had been closely watched by the government. "I think the government thought that we would take over," Feigen conjectures, and then she smiles. "I think that we should have, that would have been fantastic!"
Feigen eventually went to work in Hollywood, as an agent, a producer, and an entertainment lawyer. "The entertainment industry has the power to get through to people." She remains an entertainment lawyer today.
Feigen still considers herself a feminist, facing a hostile political climate. "It's about believing in yourself as a women and feeling that you should have the same rights as men to make decisions in society," she explains. Today, she focuses on breast cancer prevention and research for a cure. "These are issues women have to address because men aren't going to do it."
As for her greatest achievement, Feigen says, "I'm most proud of my daughter." As a district attorney in San Francisco, Feigen's daughter, Alexis, loves her job, and she is largely fighting battles other than sexism. "I'm really proud that I helped get Alexis and her contemporaries to a place where she was able to pursue her profession without the types of problems I faced," Feigen says. At Harvard Law School in the 60's, "I had to fight every step of the way," she recalls.
Feigen's other baby is her book. Not One of the Boys: Living
Life as a Feminist catalogues her entire career and life so far, from her early law school days through litigation, politics, Hollywood, motherhood, and personal relationships. Today, Feigen works at an all-male firm, but she retains her own identity. "I'm still not trying to be one of the boys," she asserts. "I'm me."