Shirley Adelson Siegel's ’37 pioneering legal work laid the foundations for some of the country’s most basic civil rights protections

By Liz Galst

Shirley Siegel
Photos by Dorothy Hong

By the time you read this magazine, Shirley Adelson Siegel ’37 will be almost 100 years old.

Consider her age to be the very least of her accomplishments.

The daughter of poor immigrants, Shirley Adelson Siegel entered Barnard on a full scholarship in the midst of the Great Depression, despite what was then not quite a quota on Jews but a general limit on their numbers. She went on to become the only woman in her class at Yale Law School, the first head of the Civil Rights Bureau at the New York State Attorney General’s office, general counsel of New York City’s Housing and Development Administration, and, in 1979, New York State’s solicitor general. One of the country’s most important civil rights lawyers, she participated in and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court landmark cases that helped to prevent discrimination in employment and prove the constitutionality of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The short version of Adelson Siegel’s story—a quintessential Barnard story, really—is that she was “a brilliant young woman who worked very hard, mastered new and important intellectual and societal challenges, and plowed onward, disregarding hindrances society and individuals put in her way,” says Indiana University law professor Florence Wagman Roisman, a longtime friend and admirer. The longer version? You’re reading it here.

Just fourteen when she graduated as valedictorian of her high school class, Shirley Adelson considered attending only one college: Barnard. It had been good enough for her oldest sister, Dorothy, so it was good enough for her. It didn’t hurt that the family lived on West 110th Street—an easy commute.

Shirley Adelson quickly fell in love with the College; Barnard loved her back. On campus, she made friends from as far away as Brooklyn. “That was sort of a foreign country,” Adelson Siegel, small-boned and elegant, jokes in her light-filled Upper West Side apartment.

A star student, she led a successful Model League of Nations team whose accomplishments were noted in The New York Times. As the head of the Jewish students’ group, The Menorah Society, she interacted with some of the leading Jewish thinkers of her day.

And then there were the Greek Games, that interclass competition featuring togas, torch races, and athletic hoop twirling. “Agathei Tuchei! [In the name of Good Fortune!]” was the beginning of the ancient Greek greeting she employed as a first-year to challenge the second-years to the competition. She can recite it still.

For almost 85 years, Adelson Siegel has maintained a strong connection to Barnard.

“All the departments at Barnard seemed to be involved,” she says, recalling the preparations. “They were really trying to develop something so that you would think you were in [ancient] Greece. And I just loved it.”

She loved academics, too. On her papers, she frequently received grades and comments like this one: “A: very good work. My only criticism: Use thicker paper!!”

Given her wide social reach and academic prowess, it’s no surprise she won the 1937 Student International Fellowship. It was a prize of $1,200—worth close to $20,000 today—that students funded themselves, depositing coins in a box in the lobby of Barnard Hall, in an area subversively called “the Jake,” after the building’s unnamed Jewish benefactor, the banker Jacob Schiff. The prize would enable her to study with British political theorist Harold Laski at the London School of Economics (LSE). There was only one problem: Not knowing she would win the fellowship (students, nominated by the faculty, campaigned for it in the school’s newspaper and the senior who won the most votes was chosen), she failed to apply in advance. Dean Virginia Gildersleeve came to her rescue, writing a letter of recommendation that said, “We consider her a young woman of exceptional promise,” and closed with the words, “Believe me.”

So it was that in September of 1937, as the Spanish Civil War raged and the Nazis plotted their invasion of Europe, 18-year-old Adelson sailed off to study in London and on the Continent. Did she know what was happening there? “Oh,” she says, “I was tremendously aware.”

Adelson Siegel attributes her desire to become an attorney to her lineage; on both sides of her family, she descends from rabbis, deciders of Jewish law. It’s just as likely, though, that her mother set her up to it. There’s a family story that at age 5, Adelson Siegel spent a two-hour train ride regaling a seatmate with her various ideas. Afterwards, her mother said, “She’s such a chatterbox, she should become a lawyer.” Remember that this was in 1923, when the number of female lawyers in the U.S. was minuscule. In kindergarten, when Adelson Siegel’s teacher asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, “I said I wanted to be a lawyer, without knowing any lawyers and having absolutely no idea what this was all about,” she recalls. She became known as “the girl who wanted to be a lawyer. This was a very odd way to choose a career,” she says. But it stuck. In 1938, at Harold Laski’s urging, she chose Yale’s Law School over Columbia’s and entered as the only woman in her class of 125.

Though Adelson Siegel is not one to complain, being a female, Jewish law student and lawyer in that era was not easy. Indeed, notes Jill Norgren, author of the newly released Stories from Trailblazing Women Lawyers: Lives in the Law, Adelson Siegel is one of very few aspiring female lawyers of her time who survived in her profession. Many others were categorically refused admission to law schools, denied jobs, harassed, or simply gave up when work was made impossible for them. Adelson Siegel faced many of these problems. An editor of the Yale Law Journal in her first two years, she was denied a top position in her third. The chair of the Journal invited her on a walk to explain. “I’d never spoken with him before this,” she recalls, still animated by the story. “He [did] all the conversing, telling me I was disqualified because of my gender.”

She graduated among the top students in her class, along with Potter Stewart, later a U.S. Supreme Court justice. But despite her high marks and the fact that titans of the legal profession at Yale organized courses in her fields of interest simply so they could have her as a student, finding a job after graduation proved all but impossible. Initially, she was rejected by forty firms. Finally, contracts professor Arthur Corbin, a giant in his field, wrote a letter of recommendation on her behalf. “She is one of our best in industry, in mental power and in personality,” he said. But “she needs help to get a starting job first because she is a girl, and secondly, because she is Jewish….Anything you can do for her will be a special favor to me.”

The largely Jewish law firm of Proskauer Rose & Paskus eventually hired her as its first female attorney. Judge Proskauer, one of the firm’s founders, told her, “You will be the rose in Proskauer Rose & Paskus.” She chose to take that as a compliment.

While she enjoyed the variety of work she did at the firm, her true love was civil rights and housing law. “During my lunch hour at Proskauer, I went around to the ACLU”—the American Civil Liberties Union—“to see what was going on.” That’s how, before she’d even passed the bar, she began writing a pro bono legal brief on the ACLU’s behalf, challenging the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. Once she passed the bar, there were more—briefs that went to the Supreme Court. She was “the only woman and the youngest person” on the organization’s Lawyers’ Panel, Norgren notes. Having studied so-called social housing at the LSE, she joined New York City’s Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a group she later led as executive director. Her reputation as a civil rights lawyer was burnished by fighting housing covenants that legally barred property owners from selling (and sometimes renting) to African Americans and other minorities.

The source of her passion for social justice she states simply enough, as if it weren’t even a question: “I think a lot of Jews are like that.”

By the time New York’s Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz created the Civil Rights Bureau in 1959, one of the first state agencies in the nation designed to fight discrimination based on race or religion, Adelson Siegel, by then a married mother of two, had a reputation that preceded her. Indeed, Wagman Roisman notes, “I have in my office a [1954] monograph that Shirley wrote with a preface by a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall.” (More than two decades before he became a Supreme Court justice, Marshall served then as special counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.) “She was doing civil rights work when it wasn’t fashionable and it wasn’t valued, except by the people who needed it,” Wagman Roisman says.

Some of her meticulously organized papers

At the Civil Rights Bureau, Adelson Siegel began by addressing racial discrimination in employment and then in housing. Representing the State of New York, she participated in Supreme Court civil rights cases that have changed the nation, including 1962’s landmark Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission v. Continental Air Lines, which prohibited discrimination in employment. In Colorado, she made her first oral argument as a friend of the court; it didn’t faze her much. There, she represented a group of (male) state attorneys general who, before the federal Civil Rights Act became law, had come to support their states’ rights to prohibit discrimination within their own borders. (You can hear her oral argument below.) “When there’s a Supreme Court argument at issue,” Wagman Roisman explains, “everyone wants [it.] It’s feeding time at the shark tank.


“Shirley ended up on top not because she elbowed her way there,” Wagman Roisman observes. Instead, “everyone agreed she would do the best job.” (Marlon DeWitt Green, the original complainant in the case whom Continental refused to hire as a pilot because he was black, recalled about the proceedings, “There seemed to be no spark until [Adelson Siegel] got up to speak. She had an effect on the whole courtroom.”) Participation in other pivotal civil rights cases soon followed, including Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, which validated the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act shortly after it was signed into law.

After seven years at the Civil Rights Bureau, and unsure of her place as a white person in the civil rights movement, in 1966 Adelson Siegel left to pursue her other love, housing policy—becoming general counsel of the New York Housing and Development Administration under New York City’s new mayor, John Lindsay.

When that administration ended, her sister Dorothy convinced her that she “needed a job with a pension.” So in 1975, she returned to the New York State Attorney General’s office, as assistant New York State solicitor general. Soon after, New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the federal government refused to bail it out. (A famous New York Daily News headline from the period reads: “[President] Ford to City: Drop Dead.”) Things were tanking fast. Adelson Siegel quickly devised the legal justification for the strategy that would enable the State to rescue the City. “It was some of my most important work,” Adelson Siegel says.

In 1982, she made a conflicted decision to retire from the attorney general’s office. Not one to sit around, she taught law at Columbia, Yeshiva, and Fordham Universities, and began doing pro bono work that continued for years. During the financial crisis of the last decade, in her early nineties, she learned that the City Bar Justice Center was teaching classes to help lawyers assist individuals whose homes were in foreclosure. Given her lifelong involvement in housing issues, “I decided I’d go to the course,” she says. “This was something I couldn’t pass up.” The New York Times featured her story, calling her “a dazzling model of exceptionalism.” And so she continues to be.

In addition to her work, Adelson Siegel has been devoted to family—her mother, two sisters, two husbands (first, filmmaker Woody Siegel, and after his death, architect Henry Fagin), daughter Ann, son Eric, and grandson Sam. And for almost 85 years, Barnard has been a constant in Adelson Siegel’s life. She has spoken on panels, raised money, and provided free legal consultations for the College. Some of her many meticulously organized papers reside in the Barnard Archives. (A guide to her papers can be found here.)

At the Inauguration of President Sian Beilock at Riverside Church this February, Adelson Siegel, dressed in a brocade suit, attended with her aide, Zabeeda Gafur. Though mentally robust, Adelson Siegel is frail. In the last year, she’s fallen a couple of times and now uses a walker. And the truth is, she’s thin as a stick. On their way out of the building, between the front door and the sidewalk, they encountered a short flight of steps—six or eight, maybe. Staff on hand informed Adelson Siegel and Gafur that they could take the ramp. It would be easier, the staff told them. And safer, too. Adelson Siegel thought for a minute and consulted her aide.

She decided to take the stairs. •

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