Shirley Adelson Siegel ’41—A New Experience at the End of Her Career
It was back in the 1970s, while Shirley Adelson Siegel ’41 was on the Board of the Alumni Association of Yale Law School, that then- President Gerald Ford ’41 was invited back to speak at the school. President Ford went around the room, greeting people and shaking hands, with photographers snapping away. But when he reached Shirley Siegel the president stopped and pointed:
“Oh, the girl in the class.”
Siegel, then Shirley Adelson, was, indeed, the only woman to graduate with the Yale Law School Class of 1941 and broke through her share of glass ceilings throughout her career. But Siegel’s law career put her at the forefront of many firsts in the fields of civil rights and housing rights—gender notwithstanding.
Volunteering with the American Civil Liberties Union, she was involved in the Supreme Court case against Japanese internment camps of the early 1940s. In 1945 she became Executive Director of the New York Citizens Housing Council. In 1959 she headed the New York State Attorney General’s first Civil Rights Bureau. She wrote the pioneering work, The Law of Open Space, and was Solicitor General in New York State from 1979 until 1982.
Though lauded by others as a trailblazer for women in law—she was interviewed in 2006 and 2007 by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession for an oral history project— Siegel has never viewed nor painted herself in such a light.
“I’m sure it has been difficult for many women lawyers to get established in the profession because of their gender, but in general— apart from the shock of being denied any pregnancy leave, before this was mandatory—being a woman was certainly not a limiting factor for me,” said Siegel. “I didn’t feel held back at any time. I had some advantages. I came from Yale, I was on the board of The Yale Law Journal, I secured a job at a respectable law firm. . . . These were the things that launched your career, there’s no question.”
She was born July 3, 1918, in the Bronx, N.Y., to immigrant parents. The seed of her lifelong interest in housing issues was planted while a junior at Columbia University’s Barnard College. Through a New Deal program known as the National Youth Administration, Siegel was interned with a newly formed organization called the New York Legislative Service, where she was assigned to the field of housing.
“I became a very enthusiastic supporter of housing programs, and I then modified my career objective accordingly,” she said in the oral history. “I was going to be a lawyer but I was going to pursue my interests in slum clearance, public housing, and housing-related subjects, such as planning.”
Her professors at Yale Law School quickly saw and supported Siegel’s dedication to housing and planning issues. Professor Myres S. McDougal ’31 jsd even initiated a seminar on the topic, knowing “he would have at least one student,” she said.
Upon hearing Siegel was having trouble finding a job after graduation, Professor Arthur L. Corbin, of Corbin on Contracts fame, wrote a letter encouraging potential employers to look beyond her gender. “She is one of the best in industry, in mental power and in personality. Anyone who employs her in legal work will have reason to be thankful to us,” he wrote.
Siegel took a post with Proskauer, Rose & Paskus as that firm’s first female lawyer. However, she also spent evenings and weekends volunteering for the American Civil Liberties Union and on housing issues for the Citizens Housing Council and others. There was a multitude of volunteer activities for someone interested in public interest law at that time, she says, as most lawyers of that day were not headed in that direction.
She pursued these aspirations in various ways. Then in 1959 she was asked by the New York State Attorney General to organize a civil rights bureau, where she began by taking on the local labor unions on the issue of equal rights to apprenticeship opportunities. “Being the head of that bureau in such times, anything you touched was in need of doing, so that you took one great step forward after another,” she said.
At 92, Siegel finds her law career still evolving. Two years ago she approached the New York City Bar Justice Center looking to do some pro bono work and found the Lawyers Foreclosure Network, which provides legal assistance to low-income homeowners facing foreclosure, with the goal of keeping people in their homes.
“It’s a different kind of law practice, representing individuals,” she said. “It has made me identify closely with individuals affected by foreclosure proceedings.
“So here I am at the very end of my career with a new kind of experience.”