Citation for Shirley Adelson Siegel ’37
Shirley Adelson Siegel. Public Servant. Brilliant attorney. Pioneer in the fight for the rights of others. In your century of life you have never failed to pursue what is fair, to demand what is just.
Born July 1918, the Bronx, New York, the daughter of Russian immigrants and the youngest of three girls. You were talkative from the start, and in kindergarten you announced that you were going to be a lawyer. At age 14 you were valedictorian of your high school class, and then earned a full scholarship to Barnard — starting college at just 15. You graduated from Barnard in 1937 when you could ride the subway for a nickel and the average New York City rent was less than $50 a month.
You knew what you wanted and you went for it, so it is no surprise that you were the only woman in your Yale Law School class of 1941. You were editor of the law review and among the very top students, but, once you graduated, you were turned down for job after job after job — 40 times the answer was “no.”
But you persisted, navigating the prevailing biases of the time, against women and against Jews, and in 1941 you became the first woman attorney at Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn. You worked on all matter of cases but were especially drawn to civil rights and housing law, so much so that you would head over to the ACLU during lunch to have a look around.
You wrote legal briefs for the ACLU challenging the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. You argued pivotal anti-discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. You served as General Counsel of New York’s Housing and Development Administration, as the first head of the Civil Rights Bureau at the New York State Attorney General’s Office, and as New York State’s Solicitor General. You wrote The Law of Open Space for the New York Regional Plan Association and were Executive Director of the Citizens Housing Council of New York. And you crafted the legal strategy that would enable the state to rescue New York City when it was on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1970s. All the while, you raised a family you adore.
There is no way to sum up such a vast and brilliant career but to say that you were the brightest star — always focused, always undeterred, and almost always the only woman in the room. You fought hard for causes that matter, many of which we take for granted so many decades later. You took care of this city and its residents as if each one were your own, even working pro bono into your 90s.
Ms. Adelson Siegel, we owe you a debt of gratitude 100 years long. On behalf of my colleagues and our seniors poised for greatness, we promise you this: The next time someone tells us “no,” we will remember your lead, and we will follow your example.
It is an honor to present you with the 2019 Barnard Medal of Distinction. We hope you love it as much as Barnard loves you.