The New Deal, one of the greatest expansions of government in U.S. history, was a “lawyers’ deal”: it relied heavily on lawyers’ skills and reflected lawyers’ values. Was it exclusively a “male lawyers’ deal”? This Essay argues that the New Deal offered important opportunities to women lawyers at a time when they were just beginning to graduate from law school in significant numbers. Agencies associated with social welfare policy, a traditionally “maternalist” enterprise, seem to have been particularly hospitable. Through these agencies, women lawyers helped to administer, interpret, and create the law of a new era.
Using government records and archived personal papers, this Essay examines three under-studied women lawyers of the New Deal. Sue Shelton White, an outspoken feminist from Tennessee, came to the New Deal after a long career as a court reporter, political organizer, and senate staffer. Records of her time in government suggest the difference that gender, and specifically gendered opportunity structures, made to the work of a New Deal lawyer. Marie Remington Wing, a prominent politician and lawyer in her native Cleveland, joined the New Deal as the lead attorney in a regional office. Her biography encourages scholars to remember that just as the New Deal was national in scale, so too was its legal work. Regional outposts of the New Deal provided some women lawyers with a taste of the power that the men in Washington enjoyed. Bernice Lotwin Bernstein was in age, brains, and social networks the equivalent of one of Felix Frankfurter’s “Happy Hotdogs.” She joined the New Deal in 1933 and stayed for forty-five years, narrowly surviving a Cold War loyalty-security investigation. Her life offers a case study in the appeal, and the dangers, that government work held for women lawyers. Taken together, these three biographies suggest the need for sustained scholarly attention to the “Portias” of the New Deal.
legal history, legal profession, New Deal lawyers, Social Security Board, women lawyers, Bernice Lotwin Bernstein, Sue Shelton White, Marie Wing
Tani, Karen M., "Portia's Deal" (2012). Faculty Scholarship at Penn Law. 2521.