Happy 32 Years, Legal Advocacy Fund! Thanks for Making a Case for WomenSeptember 18, 2013
In 1978, five female professors brought a class action lawsuit against their employer, Cornell University, citing violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Claiming they were denied tenure and passed over for less-qualified candidates, the named plaintiffs were Donna Zahorik, Jacqueline Livingston, Antonia Glasse, Charlotte Farris, and Judith Long-Laws. They numbered five, but they represented a larger group of 11 female professors and coaches who had officially submitted sex discrimination complaints against the university. The lengthy case remained in court for several years and received much national publicity. In 1984, the Cornell 11, as they were called, received a settlement payment from the university amounting to $250,000. Nearly 30 years after Zahorik, et al. v. Cornell University was settled, the case still occupies an irrevocable place in AAUW’s institutional memory.
When the case first came to court, members of the AAUW Ithaca (NY) Branch were concerned that legal costs and loss of professional status and income would be insurmountable for the plaintiffs. The branch established a support and fundraising group called the Friends of the Cornell 11. The group included some Ithaca (NY) Branch members and also former AAUW Presidents Marjorie Bell Chambers and Mary Grefe. Recognizing AAUW’s commitment to equity for women in academia, the branch reached out to the national office to help raise and handle funds to support the case. At the time, however, the budget did not have a line item for this type of work. So in June 1981, the association sprang into action at the AAUW centennial convention held in Boston.
There, in a perfect example of branch and national teamwork, AAUW created the Legal Advocacy Fund to support cases of sex discrimination in academia. It was initially created as a two-year pilot program, and the Cornell 11 became its first plaintiffs. Katherine (Kappy) Eaton served as the first president of the fund. She wrote on the need for the fund in the July/August 1982 issue of AAUW’s journal Graduate Woman: “Until very recently, most sex discrimination claims against higher education were unsuccessful. … Courts have been reluctant to interfere in academic decisions. Litigation is extremely expensive and time consuming and may be detrimental to the future careers of the women involved.” In total, the LAF donated $22,500 to the Cornell 11 but didn’t stop there; the fund continues to support scores of similar sex discrimination lawsuits in the workplace today.
Sadly, 2013 marked the passing of two of the Cornell 11 plaintiffs: Donna Zahorik and Jacqueline Livingston. Zahorik passed away in February; Livingston in June. After the settlement in 1984, Livingston reflected on the hardships and the triumphs of the case. Without the support of the Friends of the Cornell 11 group and the establishment of the LAF, she said, the plaintiffs “would not have had any chance at all.” In another Graduate Woman piece, she painted a much better picture of women’s workplace rights in 1985 than had existed before 1981:
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Today, a professional person in an institution of higher learning who feels that she has been a victim of sex discrimination in her field or at her institution will be directed toward a lawyer who is a specialist in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. There will be a local AAUW support group, part of a national network of university women and the LAF, who will help her emotionally, financially and legally.
Today, we thank AAUW leaders for their vision in realizing the need for the Legal Advocacy Fund. We also thank Donna Zahorik, Jacqueline Livingston, and all of the Cornell 11 plaintiffs who paved the way for so many others fighting gender discrimination. We honor their commitment and bravery.