Meet Suzette Malveaux: Civil Rights Lawyer

August 24, 2011

It’s been two months since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Wal-Mart v. Dukes case prevented the women of Wal-Mart from taking on the nation’s largest employer as a nationwide, class-action group. But gender discrimination doesn’t take a day off, and neither does AAUW. AAUW continues to stand behind the women of Wal-Mart because we firmly believe in protecting the rights of Americans to bring class-action suits against discriminatory employers. That’s why I asked former civil rights lawyer and 1993–94 AAUW Selected Professions Fellow Suzette Malveaux her professional opinion on Wal-Mart v. Dukes.

Malveaux earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Harvard University, and with the help of her AAUW fellowship, she completed her law degree at New York University. “I was very fortunate to get a fellowship from AAUW to go toward my legal education,” she said. “At the time, I was wrestling with whether I wanted to go to law school. It was organizations like AAUW that really made a difference in terms of giving me the financial confidence to make that decision and pursue a career as a civil rights lawyer.” Malveaux said the AAUW fellowship gave her the freedom and flexibility to work at a nonprofit after graduating, enabling her to carry out her commitment to social justice.

Malveaux began working on class-action litigation with the law firm Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld, and Toll. During her career, she worked to secure assets for survivors of the Holocaust and represented victims of the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riot before federal courts and the House of Representatives. Eight years ago, she was an attorney for the plaintiffs in Wal-Mart v. Dukes and helped draft the initial class certification motion. She reminded me of the time, resources, and courage required to bring a class-action suit against an employer, especially one as powerful as Wal-Mart. “I find the women of Wal-Mart inspiring. They have been in the trenches for the last decade.”

Malveaux now teaches civil rights and fair employment law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In 2006, she co-authored Class Actions and Other Multi-Party Litigation, and in March of this year she published “Class Actions at the Crossroads: An Answer to Wal-Mart v. Dukes in the Harvard Law and Policy Review. Referring to the Supreme Court’s decision, she said, “I share AAUW’s disappointment. The case has made it more difficult for employees and for women who are trying to challenge systemic gender discrimination to do that in large numbers. The class action is so important because it really does level the playing field between giant corporations and employees with little resources to challenge discrimination.”

Despite these setbacks, Malveaux believes we have a lot to learn from Wal-Mart v. Dukes, not only in terms of how discrimination works but also about what it takes to achieve justice. “I would take courage and inspiration from the women who have had the audacity to challenge Wal-Mart. It’s a great example of how together, we as women can do extraordinary things.”

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Melissa Rogers.

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