By Zeinab Bailoun • January 06, 2017•Writers in Residence
Work is not a new theme for women around the world. With the Industrial Revolution and the wars of the twentieth century, the forms of work available to women may have changed, but the struggles inherent in them have remained the same. In "weaponed woman," Gwendolyn Brooks writes of the working woman and her struggle:
Well, life has been a baffled vehicle
And baffling. But she fights, and
Has fought, according to her lights and
The lenience of her whirling-place.
She fights with semi-folded arms,
Her strong bag, and the stiff
Frost of her face (that challenges “When” and “If.”)
And altogether she does Rather Well.
Today, women fight their way to success both in the home and in the workplace. Marlene Trestman writes, in her 2016 biography of Bessie Margolin, about one such working woman, a fair labor lawyer, feminist, and Supreme Court advocate who lived from 1909 until 1996. Bessie was the young daughter of Harry and Rebecca Margolin, Russian-Jewish immigrants whose native language was Yiddish. She and her sister were admitted into the Jewish Orphans’ Home in New Orleans after their mother’s death, in 1913, because of their father’s financial situation. The girls attended the Isidore Newman Manual Training School two blocks away until their graduation.
Trestman's biography tells the story of a woman with unmatched ambition and a penchant for hard work. Bessie was an intelligent, career-oriented law student in a time when law schools were almost exclusively male. At the age of sixteen, Bessie was admitted to Newcomb College, the first college in the United States to grant women degrees within an all-male university, and she began law school in 1927 as the only woman in the entire law school student body. Trestman writes of the amusing situations that arose because of this novel circumstance:
A law classmate recalled the initial discomfort of having Margolin in the otherwise all-male student body. A professor assigned a civil procedure case involving an accident in a men’s room. Embarrassed to use the word toilet in Margolin’s presence, no one wanted to recite on the case. When one poor fellow finally blurted out, “Washroom,” the whole class laughed and sighed with relief. (pg 20)
Bessie graduated second in her law school class, and was the first woman at Tulane to be admitted to the honor society known as the Order of the Coif. When the personnel director at the Tennessee Valley Authority contacted her references upon her application for a job, one of them, a former Yale law professor, wrote, “If you have a place for a woman lawyer, I would say that Miss Margolin would be one of the best that you could find.” (pg 44)
Fair Labor Lawyer provides small glimpses of Bessie's more personal views on work in a male-dominated field, too. Trestman writes of Margolin's explanation, in an article for her sorority's magazine in May of 1938, that a woman lawyer “must aim to become one of the men, without, however, becoming masculine and overly aggressive in her approach.” Bessie experienced many clandestine romances, but did not get married for the rest of her life, choosing instead to focus on - and dedicate her life to - her career. She eventually argued 27 cases before the Supreme Court, prevailing in more than 90% of them.
Trestman’s book is a fascinating look at the life of Bessie Margolin, with unexpected insights into the more humorous experiences she faced as a working woman at the time. There is much we take for granted today, and a careful reading of history can show us what it has taken for women to be respected as intelligent and ambitious beings in their own right.