Decades before public interest law was a recognized specialty, Attorney Catherine Roraback devoted a significant portion of her legal practice to protecting the rights of “dissenters and the dispossessed.” She studied and practiced law at a time when there were few women lawyers in Connecticut. During her trailblazing 50-year legal career, she litigated several landmark cases including Griswold v. Connecticut, the first successful challenge to Connecticut’s severe birth control law.
Catherine Roraback was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., to the Reverend Albert Roraback and Gertrude Remsen Ditmars. Her father was a Congregational minister, and both of her parents were considered social activists. The Rorabacks were no strangers to the legal profession as Reverend Roraback came from a prominent legal family in Litchfield County, and his father had served as Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. The family also had very powerful ties to Connecticut politics with several state legislators and Republican party leaders bearing the name of Roraback.
Intending to continue in her family’s legal tradition, Roraback graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1941 and the Yale University Law School in 1948. At Yale, Roraback was the only female in her graduating class. After law school, she developed an active civil and criminal trial practice in New Haven. Her focus was always on issues of civil liberties, however, and in 1948, she helped to found the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union. In 1955, after the death of an uncle, she took over his practice in Canaan, founded in 1873 by her grandfather. In the early decades of her career, Roraback was one of the few women practicing in Connecticut courts and she litigated numerous cases representing women’s rights, calling the system at the time “very patriarchal and chauvinistic.”
Her first big case came in the mid-1960s when she represented Estelle Griswold in Griswold v. Connecticut, which became the first successful challenge to Connecticut’s eight-decades old anti-birth control statute. Connecticut’s anti-birth control law had been enacted in 1879, at the urging of State Representative and circus leader P.T. Barnum and, by the 1960s, it remained the only such stringent ban in the United States. The law not only made all birth control devices illegal, but also banned the dissemination of information about birth control methods. There had been several unsuccessful challenges to the law and, in 1961, in order to put the law to the test, Estelle Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Buxton opened a birth control clinic in New Haven. They were promptly arrested and the clinic shut down. Griswold v. Connecticut made its way through the lower courts and was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court which, on June 7, 1965, overturned the case, ruling Connecticut’s contraception laws unconstitutional. The case became a pivotal moment in the Court’s establishment of a constitutional right to privacy, and the landmark decision paved the way for Roe v. Wade less than a decade later.
In 1971, Roraback spearheaded the defense of Ericka Huggins, one of the accused in the New Haven Black Panthers Trial. Huggins was accused of conspiring with national Black Panther leader Bobby Seale to torture and murder a Black Panther member suspected of working for the police. With emotions running high and a lot at stake, Roraback, who was still the only female criminal defense lawyer practicing in New Haven, saw an opportunity to stand up for women’s rights and make a point about unequal treatment. When Huggins arrived in the courtroom and remarked at the lack of women involved in the trial, Roraback worked out a strategy by which they would downplay Huggins’ leadership role in the Black Panther organization and, therefore, her role in the kidnapping and murder of the alleged spy. Roraback instructed her client to wait for the cross-examining prosecutor to interrupt or talk over her while questioning her role in the incident. Then, very calmly, Huggins delivered the zinger: “Well, you see, it’s very hard, first of all, for a woman to be heard by men.” Swayed by Roraback’s defense of her client, the jury voted 10-2 for Huggins’ acquittal. However, because a unanimous verdict could not be reached, the case was declared a mistrial and both Huggins and Seale were freed.
Roraback went on to litigate Women v. Connecticut in 1972. The case became Connecticut’s counterpart to Roe v. Wade and resulted in the elimination of Connecticut’s anti-abortion statutes. In 1973, she represented Peter Reilly, a young Litchfield County man wrongfully accused of murdering his mother. Roraback ultimately proved that the police coerced Reilly into making a confession and withheld evidence proving his innocence. The Reilly case changed the way Connecticut citizens viewed law enforcement and exposed corruption in the ranks of the legal system.
Alongside her better-known cases, Roraback defended civil rights workers in Mississippi and U.S. citizens caught up in denaturalization proceedings during the McCarthy Era. She also served as legal counsel to Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, as President of the National Lawyers Guild (1973-1985), and as a board member for the American Civil Liberties Union (1973-1985). Roraback also served on the board of the Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund and has been the recipient of numerous legal honors and awards for making lasting contributions to the health and wellbeing of the citizens of Connecticut and the nation. The Connecticut Chapter of NARAL awards the Catherine Roraback Award to individuals and organizations that have demonstrated leadership, courage, and activism in the struggle to protect privacy rights, the legal right to obtain an abortion, and access to reproductive health for all women. The Litchfield County Bar Association also awards a scholarship in Roraback’s honor.
Catherine Roraback died in October 2007 in Litchfield County. Often called the “least flamboyant of radical lawyers,” she was known for her meticulous research and dedication to her clients, and as a deeply influential role model to many of Connecticut's most notable trial lawyers.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.