Next profile | Previous profile | May/June Contents | Gazette home


Engendering Progress


In the early 1970s, the secretaries at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington put together a list of demands for the male attorneys in their office. One of them that would change Marcia Devins Greenberger’s life—and arguably the lives of countless other women—was that the center establish a section on women’s law and bring in a female attorney to staff it.
    The lawyers were agreeable enough, but when they hired Greenberger CW’67 L’70, a tax attorney just two years out of Penn’s Law School, to create the Women’s Law project in 1972, they weren’t convinced that she would have enough work to fill a full-time position. She soon proved them wrong.
    As co-president of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), which spun off from its parent organization in 1981, Greenberger is as busy as ever, working on the myriad issues that touch women’s lives, from looking at Social Security proposals to improving child-support enforcement systems to ensuring that female students get equal access to high-tech career training. When she’s not writing briefs, she’s talking to the media, testifying on Capitol Hill about pending legislation, or meeting with government officials to discuss the ways laws are interpreted.
    “When I first graduated from law school,” she admits, “I did want to get involved in public-policy issues, but I wasn’t thinking at all about women’s rights as a field to work in. I’m not sure I even knew there was such a thing. One of the great ironies,” she adds, “was when I left the law firm I was in, I thought I was making an extraordinary leap. In fact, one of the areas we’ve worked on quite a bit has been tax policies”—such as the deduction of child-care expenses. “I didn’t have a full appreciation of all the issues that were women’s issues.”
    Greenberger, who is married to Penn alumnus Michael Greenberger L’70, found work aplenty in her new job by talking to people throughout the country. One of them was a labor-union attorney who had fielded many women’s complaints “that once they became pregnant, they faced all kinds of problems in the workplace at the very time they sorely needed their jobs and paychecks. Companies had a general policy of excluding pregnancy from their health- and disability-insurance coverage, so women faced a double whammy.” The center filed the first brief in a sex-discrimination suit against General Electric (which was typical of many employers at the time), arguing that there was no reasonable basis for distinguishing pregnancy from other physical conditions that were covered.
    But the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 ruled that pregnancy discrimination did not constitute sex discrimination, which “came as news to most women in the country,” Greenberger says. Ultimately, Congress “responded to the firestorm and made clear by an amendment [in 1978] to Title VII that it had always meant sex discrimination to include discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.”
    From that experience she learned the importance of covering all possible angles to solve a problem. In a project with Penn’s School of Medicine, the NWLC last year assembled the first women’s health report card, assessing policies, programs and health statistics in each state. When they examined the progress made toward some two-dozen benchmarks set by the federal government in 1990 for the year 2000, she says, “We were actually surprised and disappointed to see how far the country was from meeting any of those goals and how much more work was necessary to provide the kind of good health care we need to get better health outcomes for women in this country.” But the report card has generated a lot of attention, and “we’re gratified many people are using it to [set] priorities and look at their own agendas, both in the states and nationally.”
    Most recently the NWLC worked with a coalition of women’s groups to get the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to rule that under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, companies that offer preventative health care coverage must also offer prescription contraceptive coverage to their employees.
    Greenberger has two daughters of her own, (including a recent Penn graduate, Anne Greenberger C’00) and notes the many challenges that remain for women as well as their families. Among the broader goals, she says, is the creation of policies and programs which help both men and women juggle the demands of work, childcare, and the care of elderly parents. The Family & Medical Leave Act is “really just the first step to allow workers to keep their jobs open while they deal with a new baby or a family health emergency. But unlike most industrialized countries, we have no paid leave for these basic necessities.
    “A second great challenge is to address the great income disparities which still exist between rich and poor—and those struggling the most in the largest numbers are women and their children,” Greenberger says. “While some progress has been made in these boom economic times, the disparities are still far too large. We need more work and training opportunities and income supports to equip everyone with the skills they need to succeed.”

Next profile | Previous profile | May/June Contents | Gazette home

Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/2/01