Deb Ellis

Deb Ellis explains that when she came to the Women's Rights Project in the mid-1980s, "A lot of progress had been made. The question was, what are we going to do with this progress?"

Ellis and other WRP staff determined that the best answer was to use the established gains in ways that would affect women who needed it most, such as women of color, working class women, and women in nontraditional employment. In particular, in her years at WRP from 1986 to 1989, Ellis fought for the employment rights of women firefighters in New York City. She also sought to break down educational barriers for women, by reducing reliance on the SAT in providing educational opportunities, given that the test overpredicts male academic performance and underpredicts female academic performance. While at WRP, Ellis also taught women's rights as an adjunct professor at Yale College and Rutgers Law School. With WRP staff Isabelle Katz Pinzler and Kary Moss, she co-authored the third edition of ACLU book The Rights of Women.

Ellis notes one of the unresolved issues from her tenure at WRP was the issue of sex discrimination in insurance policies. Until the late 1970s, all insurance rates and pension benefits were based on sex, and women paid more or received fewer benefits based on women's longer projected life span. In a series of cases spearheaded by WRP, courts struck down such distinctions based on sex in employer-sponsored insurance and pension plans. The next step was to apply the same antidiscrimination principle to insurance plans outside the employment context. WRP attempted to use state constitutional Equal Rights Amendments in these efforts. "We had some success, but not a lot," Ellis recalls.

Even in 2006, private insurers still commonly use sex-based rates for health and life insurance. The principle is important," Ellis maintains. "This is one area of American life where companies are allowed to make sex-based distinctions when distinctions based on race or ethnicity would be unacceptable." But she acknowledges, "The difficulty is that the difference to any one woman is slight -- not enough to sue -- and the insurance companies are extremely powerful." Ellis remembers using a male plaintiff in suing an auto insurance company in Pennsylvania to challenge sex-based insurance policies. She credits Ruth Bader Ginsburg with developing this tactic to demonstrate that sex-based distinctions harm both men and women, as well as entire families.

Ellis left WRP in 1989 to become Legal Director of the New Jersey ACLU. Like fellow staff attorney Kary Moss, who became Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan, Ellis was attracted to the powerful affiliate structure during her time at the ACLU. As Legal Director in New Jersey, she had a chance to run the legal program in the office and become intensely involved in issues at the state level. Though her new position necessarily had a broader focus than women's rights issues, "I brought that consciousness from WRP with me." In one of Ellis' cases, for instance, women fought to maintain their maiden names for themselves and their children.

After leaving the ACLU affiliate, Ellis became Legal Director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (today Legal Momentum), where in 1992 she argued Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic before the United States Supreme Court. Today, she is the Assistant Dean for Public Interest Law at NYU School of Law, directing both the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) and the Root-Tilden-Kern Scholarship Program, and teaching Sex Discrimination Law. "Women's rights in general have kept improving, though there are always some backlashes," Ellis reflects. The challenge now is to translate the gains of the women's movement to women with the least resources, which she is glad to see the current WRP pursuing on several fronts.