WomenNuremberg

At IntLawGrrls and elsewhere, colleagues and I have, in recent years, told the stories of  Women at Nuremberg. A 2011 article of mine profiled Cecelia Goetz, who, after becoming the 1st woman to give an opening statement at an international criminal trial, went on to become the United States’ 1st federal bankruptcy judge. American University’s Shana Tabak has published a 2-part series on Grace Kanode, who, in July 1946 in Tokyo, became the 1st woman to appear bdolefore an international criminal tribunal. (See here and here.) And Katherine B. Fite, the U.S. State Department lawyer who helped draft the Nuremberg Charter, is not only the subject of 2 publications (a 2010 article by St. John’s Law Professor John Q. Barrett and a 2012 article by me), but also the namesake of an annual lecture given at the International Humanitarian Law Dialogs.

Not all the postwar pioneers have yet been named, however, and so we have Baltimore attorney Marlene Trestman to thank for bringing another to the fore. She is Bessie Margolin (right). Born in 1909, Margolin’s mother died when she was 4, so that she and her sibling grew up as “half-orphans” in the New Orleans Jewish Orphans’ Home. Her 1930 graduation from Tulane Law School led to research and, in 1933, a doctorate from Yale Law. Soon Margolin found herself the 1st woman lawyer at the federal government’s newly created Tennessee Valley Authority. By 1939 she’d moved to the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, the beginning of a three-decades career that included argument of 28 Supreme Court cases, plaudits from top-ranking judges, and a slew of awards.  (credit for circa-1950s Department of Labor photo, courtesy of Marlene Trestman) Margolin died in 1996 without ever securing the federal judgeship for which she’d campaigned.

A sliver of that career included the months in 1946 and 1947 that she spent at Nuremberg, Germany. Even as the International Military Tribunal Trial of the Major Nazi War Criminals unfolded at the Palace of Justice, Margolin did the important work of devising the plan for the subsequent trials before the U.S. entity now known as the Nuremberg Military Tribunals. The article’s depiction of Margolin’s dual status, as a serious lawyer and as an oft-invited guest at parties, mirrors stories of Fite and others.

Author Trestman, who lived years later at the same New Orleans orphanage, published a brief account of Margolin’s life last year, in a Journal of Supreme Court History article entitled “Fair Labor: The Remarkable Life and Legal Career of Bessie Margolin.” She’s now at work on a book-length treatment, one that will enrich understanding of the contribution that Margolin and other women lawyers of the last half-century made, both away at Nuremberg and here at home.

elsieAs readers who’ve followed me from IntLawGrrls blog to this new site well know, I’ve devoted much time in recent years to honoring foremothers – women whose life stories are sources of inspiration today,  for women and men alike. Many foremothers were nominated by IntLawGrrls contributors; others came to the fore in our on-this-day or in-passing features; still others, in the research that others and I have done respecting women at Nuremberg and Tokyo post-World War II trials. Some women – for example, the Irish pirate Gráinne Ní Mháille, known to English speakers as Grace O’Malley – have been famous for centuries. Often as not, however, history had obscured these women. It’s been rewarding to bring their stories to light.

It’s a pleasure today to write of Elsie Parrish, a foremother of every working person.

A litigant before the U.S. Supreme Court, hers is a surname that’s found its way into many a law student’s outline. Yet it may not ring a bell, for the student is more likely to recall the landmark 1937 decision – West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish – by the first words in that caption. That’s too bad: as Dr. Helen J. Knowles, a Grinnell College political scientist, demonstrates in the article she’s just published in the Journal of Supreme Court History, Parrish’s personal story, and the emphasis put on it by local media, enrich any account of the case. And many accounts exist, given that Parrish’s case marked a watershed in U.S. history: by a 5-4 vote, the Court approved a New Deal-era minimum-wage law, reversing a long trend and putting a stop to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to “pack” the Court.

Starting it all, the article points out, was Elsie Parrish. In 1935, she was a 30-something, twice-married, once-divorced, mother and grandmother who made her living by cleaning rooms in an upscale hotel in Wenatchee, Washington. (photo credit) When she lost her job and did not receive back wages in line with the state’s minimum-wage-for-women law, she sued. Two years later, she won her case.

Knowles’ article tells of the fight to the Supreme Court and relates interviews Parrish gave with local papers; to one, Parrish said:

‘I am so glad, not only for myself, but for all the women of the state who have been working for just whatever they could get.’

Of interest too is what Parrish, by then a septuagenarian, had to say when America’s 2d feminist wave was at full crest. Interviewer Adela Rogers St. Johns quoted Parrish as follows in her book Some Are Born Great 187 (1972):

‘I was surprised when nobody paid much attention at the time, and none of the women running around and yelling about Lib and such have paid any since.’

In Parrish’s own words, again to Rogers St. John, here’s why she sued her former employers:

‘I had to do it. What they did wasn’t right.’

Acknowledging the ambivalence of some feminists, for the reason that the 1937 victory was cloaked in words of judicial paternalism, Knowles takes issue with Parrish’s claim that “nobody paid attention.” After all,  the case remains a landmark. Indeed, the decision in Parrish paved the way for legislation regulating the workplace for all working women – and men, too.  Knowles’ article, and other accounts in recent years, begin to restore, to the popular understanding of the case, the story of the woman who brought the suit.