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Bar News - July 16, 2014

Book Review: Unapologetic Memoir Describes Battle Against Discrimination


In Defense of Women: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Advocate
By Nancy Gertner
Beacon Press (2012), 264 pages

Walk a mile in my shoes. That is what former federal Judge Nancy Gertner asks of readers, story after story, in her memoir about a tenacious pursuit of justice. She makes no apology for her advocacy and describes both the personal discrimination she endured and the discrimination she fought against for her clients.

Gertner was raised in Flushing, NY, and was the valedictorian of her high school. She honed her advocacy skills by arguing for hours with her father, Moishe, about the evening news. While he gave his blessing for her to attend law school, her mother recommended she take the Triborough Bridge toll taker’s test, “just in case.” She graduated from Yale Law School in 1971.

In 1975, Gertner defended antiwar activist Susan Saxe for her role in a robbery that resulted in the murder of a police officer. The Saxe case defined Gertner’s strength and tenacity. In her signature red suit, she demonstrated daring litigation tactics. After enduring sexist remarks from the prosecutor and court that punctuated the case, she waited for the state to rest. Rather than present a defense, she stunned her opponent by launching into a well-rehearsed closing. She won.

In other stories, she describes the women denied tenure and held to impossible standards, unlike their male counterparts. She recalls that at one speaking engagement, the moderator was tempted to introduce her credentials not by the number of universities she attended, but rather, by the number of universities she had sued over gender discrimination.

Humor aside, she fought to level the playing field for women in the workplace. Sometimes the stakes were high. In one story, her client, a baggage handler at Boston’s Logan Airport, was found dead after she sought Gertner’s help to stop the unending stream of sexual epithets.

Intertwining the stories are Gertner’s observations of how society’s evolving views on abortion, sexual assault, and sexual harassment impacted her cases. Gertner compares the early gender discrimination suits where the “law cure” was effective to later sexual harassment cases. The heavy political and legal focus on sexual harassment started to obscure the larger issue of gender discrimination.

Other stories are about Gertner’s defense cases. She defended 1,400 demonstrators from the Clamshell Alliance and Ted Anzalone on trial for extortion. She defended the brother of Charles Stuart and discusses the racial uproar that resulted from Stuart’s false accusation that a black man killed his pregnant wife.

Lastly, she reflects on her role as a judge. She describes sitting on a panel with Judge Sonia Sotomayor where each was asked to describe her path to the bench. Sotomayor graduated from Yale, worked as a prosecutor and then as a corporate lawyer, and otherwise demonstrated her ability to be a neutral, temperate jurist.

Gertner took a different path. She represented a feminist, radical, anti-Vietnam War activist; took every abortion case in the state; spoke out on the major hot-button legal issues of the day; and represented defendants from all stripes.

Her point? Every judge, regardless of their path, has to move to neutral. That move should be no more difficult for the civil rights advocate than for the prosecutor or corporate lawyer.

Gertner is a gifted writer and advocate. Her stories of breaking down gender barriers and promoting justice for all will leave you feeling you’ve walked that mile with her.

Gertner was recently selected to receive the ABA’s 2014 Margaret Brent Lawyers of Achievement Award.

Marcia A. Brown

Marcia A. Brown is a member of the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association and the NHBA Gender Equality Committee. She practices in Concord.

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