Roberta Kaplan, United States V. Windsor Attorney
In this MAKERS interview, attorney Roberta (Robbie) Kaplan talks about why she chose to take on the landmark Edie Windsor case, what made the case personal, and the Supreme Court's landmark decision, ruling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund
Roberta Kaplan, United States V. Windsor Attorney
Sandra Day O'Connor, First Female Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Marcia Clark, Prosecutor
Catharine MacKinnon, Pioneering Legal Scholar
- One of the things I did learn from my parents was you should be involved in your community, you should care about what's going on around you, in the world, and, if you see something that troubles you, you should get involved in it.
- My parents were Chinese immigrants. They came as young, recent college graduates from China in 1949. My dad didn't have any sons, but he poured all of the ambition and all of his hopes and dreams into his two daughters. And, my sister and I, I think, grew up really wanting to meet those aspirations. My mother was trained as a chemist, but became a stay at home mom, as so many moms did in the '50 and '60s. When they had kids, she got really involved in trying to make the community that we lived in a better place. And, I think, watching her do that made me want to do the same. It's a value that, I think, is pretty deeply embedded in me.
- I became an officer in the National Organization for Women. We organized marches, we were doing phone banking. I really learned how to do political organizing. I liked being a litigator. I loved being able to help people with their problems. Probably liked it because I like to argue. One of the things I was lucky enough to do throughout my career was what I used to call extracurriculars. I was always involved in women's politics, and a lot of not for profit organizations, which, along the way, I happened to meet a guy who was an up and coming organizer, and his name was Barack Obama.
- Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
- So help you God?
- So help me God.
- Congratulations, Mr. President.
- First of all, if the President of the United States asks you to come serve, you go serve, because it doesn't happen very often, and it is a really rare opportunity to come to Washington and do things on a scale that will affect the entire country. And, really be part of history. So, I was thrilled to be able to do it. We created a council that involved all of the federal agencies to really make sure that, not only are we addressing the issues that affect women and girls in a central way, on key issues, like violence against women, and women's economic security, and STEM education for girls, but that each individual agency always bears in mind that whatever they do may affect women and girls, and to pay special attention to that.
- To be able to promote the First Lady's agenda, and really bring some national awareness to caring for our kids has been an amazing opportunity to bring a lot of my personal history to bear to the passion I've had for women's issues throughout my career. I think that women are able to see all sides, and we're able to bring those perspectives to a decision-making process in a way that, I think, is collaborative and creative.
- I realized that as First Lady you can bring so much attention and marshal so many resources to really help on whatever issue that you're focused on so I have always taken that responsibility very seriously. I'm a Chicago native, I grew up on the South Side in a really small apartment with my parents and my older brother Craig. My dad worked as a pump operator at the city water plant. My mom stayed at home and so we didn't have a lot of money but my brother and I were blessed with something far more valuable because our parents truly gave us unconditional love and encouragement to go places they never imagined for themselves. Neither of them had a college degree but they made it very clear that they expected me and my brother to get the best education possible so school was always, always the center of our lives. So I made it my point to give it 120%. The early part of my life was focused on sort of reaching those traditional markers of success. I focused on getting the right degrees, going to the right schools. So by the time I was in my mid 20s and working at a firm I had everything that I was told I should want but I could still feel that there was something missing. I started to ask myself some more important questions like what do I really care about and how do I give something back? I wanted to be in a position to help folks from neighborhoods like mine, especially young people, have the opportunities that I had. So I quit my job at the law firm and found myself working in careers where I could spend my time lifting up the kinds of communities that I grew up in. The inauguration was one of the coldest Januaries that I've spent here in Washington D.C. It was freezing. I really remember what it felt like to walk out the steps of the Capitol and stand there with Barack as he took the oath of office and look out at what felt like endless amounts of people standing as far as the eye could see from every race, age, background you could imagine would come from every corner of the country just to witness this historic moment. It was probably one of the most profoundly moving experiences that I've ever had. And to have our girls there with us, those two little bitty girls standing on that stage is a moment I'll never forget. This role, it's a real gift because it brings with it this big bright spotlight and that's why I've worked hard to choose work on issues that I care deeply about, that I feel really defines me or that I'm connected with, that will really make a difference in peoples' lives. We've really worked to raise the profile of this issue. I've had the opportunity to travel the world and everywhere I go I meet these amazing young women and they impress me with how bright and how hungry they are no matter what their circumstances are, they'd risk their lives for an education. And they have so much promise that we can't afford to waste. I see myself in these girls so I want Let Girls Learn to be part of my life's work for decades to come because for me this issue is personal. I hoped that I've used my big spotlight to move the needle on a whole range of issues but I feel honored and blessed to have served this role for my country.
MARCIA CLARK: I think it was really a new experience to see a woman on the national level like this, doing a job that was typically done by men and not really something people were willing to accept yet.
I never had a sense that there was anything I couldn't do. Being a girl didn't matter. In fact, the opposite. You can do anything. And so I was kind of raised with that awareness that there are no limitations.
And they asked me if I could type. Really? That was my first, like, head banging right into the cement wall of sexism. So I went to law school. I figured, get a Law degree. They can't stop me from practicing law because I'm a woman.
It was suggested that I wear pastels, suggested that I speak more softly, suggested that I smile more. And I thought I'm not going to let these guys tell me to go curtsy and wear a pinafore. That's ridiculous. This is not a dinner party, this is a murder trial.
- Yes, Marcia Clark has a new 'do. Old Clark, new Clark.
- She found herself under scrutiny for everything, even the short skirt she wore during the tour of the Simpson estate.
MARCIA CLARK: There was not one thing I didn't know and commit to memory, nothing I didn't fix, touch, handle a million times before walking into court. If this is all you can talk about, my hair and the length of my skirts, we haven't come as far as I thought or hoped.
Ito never lost an opportunity to undermine me in front of the jury. He was dismissive, condescending, and downright rude, in a way that he never was to any of the men. He was completely oblivious to his own misogyny.
Cannot succumb to the temptation to thwart justice and throw truth out the window.
JUDGE ITO: I'm going to stop you right here, I warned you three times now.
MARCIA CLARK: OK. All we're asking is that you--
JUDGE ITO: Counsel!
MARCIA CLARK: I'm coming--
JUDGE ITO: I'm warning you. I've warned you three times now.
MARCIA CLARK: I'm concluding right now, your Honor.
JUDGE ITO: Please.
MARCIA CLARK: May I?
JUDGE ITO: Please
MARCIA CLARK: Thank you.
At the end of the day, you can't let the fact that you have a sexist on the bench affect your job. But the rulings were so terrible. I remember there was a moment in court when I was objecting, because they were going all over the place with things that were completely irrelevant, and I was overruled again and again and again. And I could feel my stomach knotting, knowing these are all wrong rulings. Every single one is burying the truth under a mountain of garbage.
There's no way to say that there wasn't enough evidence to convict. It's a question of whether you're willing to.
- We the jury, in the above entitled action, find the defendant not guilty of the crime of murder.
- The trial of O.J. Simpson is over. He is not guilty.
- Today, his imprisonment and trial are over, but the questions raised about race, the police, the judicial system are not.
MARCIA CLARK: I just remember thinking, wow, they really did it. It left me with a hole in my heart about all of the social injustice that led to a verdict like this. The divide was so profound. I walked out of the courtroom and never went back.
Every movement, you have a step forward and then there's a retraction. I think we have another awakening that's happening now and that's really a beautiful thing to see. I was interviewed a lot by millennials. The reporters I spoke to, both male and female, were outraged at the sexism they saw as they studied the case. They said, did you really go through that? Is that true? I said oh yeah. They were disbelieving, stunned, and outraged. That's a whole new world we're living in. That is progress.
ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I learn to be a feminist from being black. I learned to be a feminist from being denied my rights as an African-American. I'm a third generation Washingtonian, born in a city where residents had no vote in Congress, no vote for president of the United States, paid federal taxes, and had segregation in all of its facilities and schools mandated by the Congress of the United States. That didn't sit well with my parents.
By the time I got to Yale Law School, I knew exactly what I wanted to do all right. Remember there was no civil rights movement. So if you wanted to do something that helped move black people out of their virtual apartheid state, being a lawyer seemed to make good sense. Black women were initially perplexed about how they should respond to the Women's Movement. Its first face was a white face. That meant white privilege.
How are we to respond? Well, some of us felt pretty clearly how to respond. For that you can be both female and black at the same time. And if you didn't think you could, you are. You need to come to grips with that. I literally had to go around to women's organizations and I said, why is it that only blacks file complaints before my commission. I remember that I was so frustrated that I had the first comprehensive hearing on women's rights. It was a part of consciousness raising so that women would have, in fact, do something when they found themselves in the workforce treated equally.
When President Carter appointed me to chair to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the problem really stemmed from certain kinds of complaints. What complaints we saw work horrendous. Sometimes I wouldn't call them sexual harassment. I would call them sexual assault. And we issued the first sexual harassment guidelines. They were later affirmed by the Supreme Court. Then women began to come forward.
The women in Congress met on the floor, and we decided that some of us had better get over to the Senate or this was going to be a done deal.
Now I do not believe that Professor Anita Hill should be left to stand alone without being heard. We knocked on the door of the Senate. We were not let in, but television cameras had followed us and they knew they had to do something.
ANITA HILL: There's no motivation that would show that I would make up something like this.
ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: There's no question that Anita Hill will inspire others to come forward. But Anita Hill did something even larger for women. There developed the year of the woman, and that's when we got the first African-American woman in the Senate and a group far larger than usual elected to the house.
Every new group has a moment which is legitimately called a revolution. Once that first burst, in fact, breaks through, that revolutionary moment may be gone, but the notions, the movement, the energy continues.
GERALDINE FERRARO: When I got off the phone, I opened the door to my hotel room, where I had taken the call quietly, and said to a staffer who was sitting outside, David, we're making history.
I remember, I was riding with Tip O'Neill, and we were going to the convention center. And the crowds were huge. And I said to him, God, who are they all here for? And he said, for you. The convention is something that I will never forget as long as I live.
My fellow citizens, I proudly accept your nomination for Vice President of the United States. Looking down in that audience, I was absolutely stunned. The whole place was almost all women. People would interrupt me with applause and shouting. It was unbelievable.
There was an elderly woman leaning on a walker. And she leaned into me, and she said, you know, I never thought I'd live to see this day.
I look back, and I think, it did make a difference. We pulled down the sign from the door of the White House that says, male only. If you can take that sign down from the door of the White House with a candidacy, is there any job in this country, or in the world, that any woman would be told, sorry, we're not hiring any women this year. Or any job that she can be told, you just can't make it. There isn't one.