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December 2: General Counsel for Women’s Rights

December 2, 2013
Harriet_Fleischl_PilpelHarriet Fleischel Pilpel, general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood who appeared in twenty-seven cases before the Supreme Court and was a key legal strategist in the struggle to legalize abortion, was born in the Bronx on this date in 1911. After taking degrees at Vassar and Columbia, she was second in her graduating class at Columbia Law in 1936. Pilpel represented the Kinsey Institute in a 1957 decision against the U.S. Customs Service over its impounding of sex-education materials. Four years later, she argued on behalf of Planned Parenthood in Poe v. Ullman, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a Connecticut law criminalizing birth control. (The Court declined to rule.) She then wrote Planned Parenthood’s 1965 amicus curiae briefs for Griswold v. Connecticut, which linked the right to privacy to the legalization of birth control, and for Roe v. Wade, which in 1973 established the right of women to abort a pregnancy, also based on the right to privacy. Pilpel’s activism preceded the Griswold and Roe decisions by decades; she was one of the only feminists of her hey-day who had worked closely with Margaret Sanger and other pioneering birth control advocates. Later in life, Pilpel in turn mentored many attorneys involved in abortion cases and other issues affecting the freedom of women. A great advocate of free speech, Pilpel represented Edna Ferber, Betty Friedan, Billy Graham, Jerome Kern, Alfred Kinsey, Erich Maria Remarque, Mel Brooks, and Svetlana Alliluyeva (Stalin’s daughter) in First Amendment cases. She was a very public advocate who wrote and lectured widely and frequently took on William F. Buckley on his Firing Line television show. She was also active in the American Jewish Congress during its days as a force for civil liberties and civil rights. Pilpel died at 79 in 1991. “She was a brilliant legal tactician with a deep knowledge of the nuance of doctrine, but she was also acutely attuned to political opinion, organizational politics, the press, religious feeling, and the broad cultural forces that shape constitutional principle.” —Notable American Women, A Biographical Dictionary