Today Americans live in a country where women work as doctors, lawyers, diplomats, senators, astronauts and CEOs, none of which seem especially remarkable to us. Yet it was not that long ago that women in those professions were so unusual as to be curiosities, remarked upon as much for their novelty as for anything else. In many ways these women were trailblazers in that their careers help to normalize what we take for granted today, yet they often remain anonymous to us.
One of the exceptions to this is Bessie Margolin. From an orphanage in New Orleans she rose to become a career attorney with the federal government who argued over two dozen cases before the Supreme Court, nearly all of them successfully. Thanks to Marlene Trestman, we now have a biography that describes the life which she led and her achievements in living it, and the picture she paints is of a remarkably modern woman by our standards, one who carved out the ability to live a life mainly on her own terms, though not without sacrifices.
The daughter of immigrant Russian Jews, Margolin and her sisters were transferred to the Jewish Orphans' Home in New Orleans soon after their mother's death in 1913. There they enjoyed opportunities for education that would have been denied them had they remained with their father Harry. Margolin excelled in her studies, eventually graduating from Tulane University with her JD and winning a fellowship at Yale. As a woman, though, her opportunities were limited, and she sought out service in the federal government as one of the few places where she might be given an opportunity to exercise her talents. As a lawyer first with the Tennessee Valley Authority and then with the Department of Labor she soon distinguished herself in a wide range of litigation and earned the considerable respect of her peers. Her personal life was no less active, as she enjoyed relationships with a number of men (most of whom were married) while nonetheless retaining her independence.
Margolin made clear that for most of her life she sought to be judged on her ability, and for the most part she succeeded. Yet later in life she developed a growing interest in the disparity of treatment between men and women, and was one of the founders of the National Organization of Women in 1966. In this respect, while a model for women who garnered national attention, she did so for who she was rather than what she represented. Trestman relates all of this in a book that is concise yet interesting for the insights it offers into this often overlooked figure in American legal and women's history.