In his introductory remarks at the Law Women Annual Alumnae Reception on February 13, Dean Trevor Morrison noted that the two most important mentors in his career have been women: Judge Betty Fletcher of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court. “From personal experience… the importance of women’s leadership is deep, of course, for women in the law, but it is in fact critical for the law, period, and for society,” Morrison said.
This year’s choice for the Law Women’s Alumna of the Year award, Nancy Stearns ’67, serves as an example of just how crucial women’s leadership in the law can be. At the reception, Law Women co-chairs Cara Hume ’20 and Nikta Daijavad ’20 presented Stearns with the award, recognizing in particular her work on groundbreaking reproductive rights cases in the 1960s and 70s, including two cited in Roe v. Wade.
In 1969, Stearns joined with an all-women legal team—“unusual in that day in age,” she noted in her remarks—to represent hundreds of New York women in the first feminist challenge to restrictive abortion laws. “I’ll never forget that first day in court,” Stearns said. “The courtroom was packed with women, many of whom had actually signed on to be plaintiffs. Many carried babies with them. Other women carried coat hangers with them, the symbol of illegal abortion. And of course our legal team was all women. It was nothing that the male federal bar and male federal judges had ever seen before.”
Now principal court attorney in the Law Department of the New York State Supreme Court, Stearns recalled that before she went to law school, she was a volunteer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There she realized she needed a law degree “if I wanted to be helpful to the civil rights movement beyond being a good envelope stuffer.” Stearns enrolled at NYU Law, one of the women who then comprised just 10 percent of the NYU Law class— although, she noted, “at that time it was far more than other law schools.” (Today, women make up more than 50 percent of the Law School’s JD student body.)
Stearns’ first job out of law school involved working on challenges to the constitutionality of House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenas, after which she was hired as a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Six months into her job, she attended a meeting of the Women’s Health Collective, a group of women in healthcare who were discussing the barriers faced by women who needed abortions. “I thought back to what I had learned from the civil rights movement, and how the civil rights movement lawyers used litigation as an organizing tool, and not just to defend the people who were arrested,” Stearns said. “And I thought, why can’t women learn from the civil rights movement playbook?”
The result was Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, a class action that cited women’s experiences with illegal abortion and unwanted pregnancy to argue that New York state’s virtual ban on abortion—except to save a woman’s life—violated their constitutional rights. The litigation was overtaken by events in 1972 when the New York legislature changed the state’s laws to legalize abortion. However, Stearns worked with other groups to use the same model of litigation to challenge laws in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. The Connecticut and Rhode Island cases went on to be cited in Roe v. Wade.
Looking at the erosion of reproductive rights today, Stearns said, “I cannot pretend that I have all the answers to what we should be doing now.” But she added, “Once again, women must speak out publicly about their experiences with the issue of unwanted pregnancies and what happens to their lives, women who went through the bad old days, women who are now experiencing the bad new days, and really we must reach out to women who live in states where already abortion is basically unavailable.”
In organizing for reproductive justice, Stearns said, “we have to recognize that the challenge to our reproductive rights is more than just the issue of abortion. It really is an effort to undo so much of our gains, and because of that, I think we have to… gear up for a long and hard struggle that’s ahead of us,” Stearns said.
However, in thanking Law Women for selecting her for this honor, she said that it heartened her to see so many young lawyers recognizing the importance of that struggle: “Thank you for honoring the work that I was lucky to be part of, and for ensuring that it continues.”
Posted February 27, 2019