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Honoring the trailblazing Judge Patricia Wald

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 3/4/2019, 4:58 p.m.
When President Barack Obama awarded Judge Patricia Wald the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, he summed up her career ...

Children’s Defense Fund

When President Barack Obama awarded Judge Patricia Wald the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, he summed up her career this way: “Patricia McGowan Wald made history as the first woman appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Rising to chief judge of the court, she always strove to better understand the law and fairly apply it. After leaving federal service, Judge Wald helped institute standards for justice and the rule of law at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Hailed as a model judge, she laid a foundation for countless women within the legal profession and helped unveil the humanity within the law.”

This gives a brief sense of what made my friend, Judge Wald, who passed away last month at age 90, a trailblazing champion for justice for children and all of us.

Early on, Judge Wald was an example of the importance of giving every child an equal chance to succeed – girls as well as boys, wealthy as well as working class. She was raised by a single mother in a crowded home with their close-knit extended family in Torrington, Connecticut, a factory town where Judge Wald spent teenage summers on World War II-era assembly lines “up to [her] arms in ball-bearing grease.”

Most of her relatives’ lives revolved around work at the factory, but they encouraged her as she excelled in school and supported her dream of going to college.

She graduated first in her class from Connecticut College – then Connecticut College for Women – in 1948, and went on to Yale Law School where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal and one of only 11 women in her class.

She described that experience years later: “We more or less accepted the fact that we would be a minority, that we would not escape notice in class, and that we would always be asked to give the plaintiff’s testimony in rape moot courts. … The men lived in the big stone dormitories, but the women were required to live off campus in this dinky old house that was falling down near the railroad tracks. Every night for three years, the Boston-Maine went roaring by my window at a quarter past twelve.”

Though I followed her at Yale Law School more than a decade later, my fellow women students and I experienced some of the same isolation, including exclusion from the all-male school dormitories and our constitutional law professor’s course, which he insisted on holding at Mory’s – a private club across the street from Yale Law School that excluded women.

Judge Wald said the silver lining was the bond it forged: “By sticking together we managed to weather the storm.”

Being one of the first or only women in a role never slowed her down. As President Obama said, she was the first woman to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second – and then the first woman to preside over that powerful court. Her long and influential tenure there followed years of useful service fighting for labor rights, the poor, women and children.