Kathleen Peratis

At one point in 1967, Kathleen Peratis sat down to write a pamphlet for the ACLU, entitled "A Snapshot Guide to Title VII," and penned the entire piece from memory. "I knew every case that had ever been decided," she confesses. 'there was a moment in history when there was nothing I didn't know."

Peratis took over as Director of the Women's Rights Project after Ruth Bader Ginsburg stepped down in 1974, and her expertise helped WRP continue its great successes. Asked to describe the hurdles she faced, she declares, "I didn't think there were any! It was a time when we filed a case and practically got a victory in the return mail." Peratis admits that, in her youthful enthusiasm, she once considered a lawsuit against the entire state of Georgia and its employers at all levels for discrimination against women, the tide seemed to be going so strongly in her favor. "It was a time when we could not lose," she reminisces.

WRP"s achievements in that era were undeniable. "We knew that we were in the middle of a real movement," Peratis acknowledges. "We were the go-to place about all legal matters in women"s rights." Despite all the hard work, Peratis enjoyed her career pursuits. "I had no idea that I was having the time of my life," she laughs.

Peratis had a particular interest in employment-related issues and the protection of working women. Under her direction, WRP reviewed pleadings by ACLU affiliate lawyers doing employment discrimination litigation and acted in a backup capacity for many local lawsuits. "It was the best kind of help we could give them," Peratis explained. Constitutional arguments for gender equality were still in their infancy, but a growing body of case law supported employment discrimination claims; in both arenas, WRP had much advice to offer. According to Peratis, this counsel was her best contribution.

Peratis remembers that she used to pass Roger Baldwin, the founder of the ACLU at the other end of the ACLU offices. Though she considered him a living legend, on one occasion she approached and directly asked Baldwin why he didn't come around to WRP more often. "He told me he didn't know it was allowed," she claims. As Peratis explains, "People were scared to death of us. They thought we would bite their heads off!"

When WRP won Turner v. Dept. of Employment Security, a Supreme Court case that struck down a law that made pregnant women ineligible for unemployment benefits during maternity leave, the story was reported on the front page of the New York Times—above the fold, Peratis points out. The article quoted Peratis and noted that she was pregnant during the litigation. Aryeh Neier, then executive director of the ACLU, remarked, "Only the queen of England and Kathleen Peratis have their pregnancies announced in the New York Times."

Through it all, Peratis was an optimist. "We thought it would never end," she says of the tide of women"s rights advances. She and others believed civil rights victories for women would continue until there was nothing left to litigate. "I was young and stupid; I didn't understand about pendulums," she sighs. In past years, Peratis says she has witnessed "such a reverse, such an about-face," and she expresses concern for the rights of women in the workplace, reproductive freedom, and the rights of lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual women. Peratis continues to fight for these rights today, as a partner at the employment law firm Outten & Golden, where she represents plaintiffs in discrimination cases, including two cases the firm is currently co-counseling with WRP.