Bessie Margolin: a lawyer, feminist and mentor

Op-ed: A Baltimore lawyer writes Supreme Court advocate Bessie Margolin back into history.

Just in time for Women's History Month, Baltimore lawyer Marlene Trestman — a Goucher College graduate and former special assistant to the Maryland attorney general — presents us with a biography of Bessie Margolin, a pioneering advocate in the Supreme Court of the United States from the dawn of the New Deal to the first term of Richard Nixon.

Although separated by a half century, both Margolin and Ms. Trestman were raised as orphans in New Orleans, wards and beneficiaries of Jewish philanthropy. Both received scholarships to the Isidore Newman School, which counts judges, writers and the Manning football brothers among its prominent alumni.

When Ms. Trestman was a freshman at Goucher in 1974, her guidance counselor at Newman wrote a letter introducing her to Margolin, who had retired as a U.S. Department of Labor attorney two years earlier. Ms. Trestman phoned the distinguished Newman alumna who graciously invited the nervous freshman to visit. There followed a decades-long series of phone calls, visits, dinner and theater in D.C.

Written into history

Ms. Trestman was struck at the outset by Margolin's elegance and savoir faire. She vividly recalls the headwaiter's greeting at their first dinner: "Miss Margolin, your usual table?" And she remembers Margolin's charming idiosyncrasies: her conviction, for example, that cutting cantaloupe counted more calories than ingesting it. Ms. Trestman writes that as she attended George Washington Law School and began her three decades of service in the Maryland attorney general's office, Margolin punctuated their relationship with "captivating recollections" and "helpful advice."

In "Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin" (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge), Ms. Trestman chronicles Margolin's extraordinary legal career in public service. That career included her spectacular record in the Supreme Court, where she won 21 of the 24 cases she argued; her 33 years in the Department of Labor's solicitor's office where, in the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren, her advocacy developed the "flesh and sinew" around the "bare bones" of the Fair Labor Standards Act; and her development, in her final years at DOL, of the strategies that gave life and breadth to the newly enacted Equal Pay Act, a landmark in the struggle for gender equality.

Despite her achievements, Margolin has been largely forgotten. But Ms. Trestman's biography introduces her to a new and wide audience. Ms. Trestman has produced an account of Margolin's professional and personal life that is prodigiously researched, well-crafted and highly readable. It fulfills Ms. Trestman's determination "to see Bessie Margolin written back into history."

Equal opportunity

The biography is not a mere catalog of her subject's professional accomplishments. Ms. Trestman pays particular attention to Margolin's unique role in an era when women composed well under 5 percent of the American bar. She tells us that Margolin was "an equal opportunity perfectionist who held her staff to the same exceptionally high standards she set for herself." She did, however, enable several female staffers to work part-time to accommodate family obligations, boasting, only half in jest, that the part-time women were as productive as the full-time men.

Ms. Trestman stresses Margolin's perfectionism as it affected both her appellate briefs and — assisted by recurring appointments at an Elizabeth Arden salon — her trim and fashionable personal appearance. That appearance — coupled with a "calm and measured" style of argument in the "honeyed voice" of an "unmistakably southern" New Orleans accent — may well have occasionally contributed to her success. As Ms. Trestman puts it, "Even after twenty arguments at the high court, Margolin's gender was often made an issue, with Justice [Felix] Frankfurter implying that her successes were aided by 'the deft use of her feminine charms' to his apparent delight." Ms. Trestman also notes, however, that Justice William O. Douglas, who heard every one of Margolin's Supreme Court arguments, wrote that Margolin was among the "'ten best advocates who have appeared before us in the last 25 years that I have been on the bench'" without reference to gender.

Margolin was a feminist and a founding member of the National Organization for Women in 1966. In Ms. Trestman's telling, however, Margolin had long since "taken to heart the feminist credo of Virginia Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own.'" Independence — a woman's financial independence — was a core Margolin belief. Early in her career she told a reporter who asked why she had not married that "I haven't had time for love … but I'm not immune, I'm just uncontaminated … so far." Margolin remained single but was no stranger to romance, as her several serious love affairs, for which Ms. Trestman marshals abundant evidence, attest.

A worthy acolyte

Bessie Margolin was the first female lawyer Ms. Trestman ever met and was undoubtedly the inspiration for her own path to the law and public service.

Ms. Trestman could not have been a more worthy acolyte. She was an increasingly indispensable member on the staff of three Maryland attorneys general. She was in the forefront of Maryland's efforts to end its deplorable warehousing of the developmentally disabled; she was the state's point person in its long struggle with the asbestos industry; she spearheaded the attorney general's fight to enforce its settlement with Big Tobacco; she trained fledgling lawyers, and she helped make Maryland a national leader in combating underage alcohol and tobacco use and promoting Internet safety. Not surprisingly, she won two of the office's prized exceptional service awards.

Just as Ms. Trestman's biography recaptures the story of Bessie Margolin's life, Ms. Trestman's career as a government lawyer honors the memory of her mentor.

Stephen H. Sachs was United States attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and state attorney general from 1979 to 1987. His email is steve.sachs@wilmerhale.com.

Editor's note

Marlene Trestman is speaking about her book at Goucher College on March 24 and at the University of Baltimore Law School on March 30. Information: www.marlenetrestman.com.

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