A Pioneer in Civil Rights Law

Attorney Shirley Adelson Siegel ’37 dedicated her career to social justice and fairness

By Stefani Shoreibah ’21

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Portrait of Shirley Siegel
Photo by Dorothy Hong

Shirley Adelson Siegel ’37, who argued landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court as one of the country’s leading civil rights attorneys, died in June at the age of 101. Throughout her 70-year career, she showed a steadfast commitment to social justice — most notably, fighting against racial discrimination in employment and housing.

Siegel, a woman of many firsts, wasn’t afraid to fight for herself either. She held a number of prominent positions, including solicitor general of New York State, the first head of the Civil Rights Bureau at the New York State attorney general’s office, and head of general counsel of New York City’s Housing and Development Administration. In a pivotal 1963 civil rights case involving a Black pilot’s suit against Continental Air Lines, Siegel successfully defended New York’s anti-discrimination laws.

“In your century of life, you have never failed to pursue what is fair, to demand what is just,” said associate general counsel Virginia Ryan ’83 during the 2019 Commencement celebration, at which Siegel was awarded the Barnard Medal of Distinction.

Siegel was born in the South Bronx on July 3, 1918, to Henry and Rose Adelson. She excelled academically at a young age, declaring in kindergarten that she would like to pursue a career in law. She graduated as valedictorian of her high school at age 14 and attended Barnard College at 15 on a full academic scholarship. While at the College, Siegel took a part-time job with a New Deal program, the New York Legislative Service, where she began to cultivate her interest in and love for public-interest law and fair housing.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard, Siegel attended the London School of Economics and subsequently Yale Law School, as the only woman in her class. Despite graduating at the top of her class at Yale, Siegel was turned down by more than 40 law firms before Proskauer, Rose & Paskus hired her; she was the first woman attorney there.

Driven by her passion for civil rights and housing law, she worked as a lawyer pro bono for the ACLU during her lunch hour at Proskauer, drafting a legal brief challenging Japanese internment camps during World War II — a case that eventually went before the Supreme Court. In the 1970s, Siegel played a significant role as the assistant New York State solicitor general in aiding New York City from bankruptcy. “It was some of my most important work,” Siegel told Barnard Magazine in the Spring 2018 article “Undeterred.”

Even after she left government, Siegel never slowed down; she taught law at Columbia, Yeshiva, and Fordham Universities while taking on pro bono cases, including her involvement in the foreclosure project at the New York City Bar Justice Center after the 2008 financial crisis.

“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,” Ryan said at 2019’s Commencement. “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.”

Siegel is survived by a son, Eric D. Siegel, a daughter, Ann B. Siegel, a son-in-law, Michael Fischer, and a grandson, Samuel H. M. Fischer.

Latest IssueSummer 2020

Read more about how the Barnard community is staying connected during these challenging times, from the College’s virtual “Reunion Reimagined” to in-depth conversations with alums Lida Orzeck ’68 and Maryam Banikarim ’89, P’21.  To access Class Notes, click here