Ellen Ash Peters

Ellen Ash Peters
"It is the case, as lawyers often say, that everything and anything can arrive in a state courthouse. We are courts of general jurisdiction; we resemble utility infielders. On the Appellate Court where I now sit to hear cases, our docket deals with marriage and divorce and children and land disputes and busted drug deals and sexual assaults and homicides. The trial courts are the fact finders and we review the legal conclusions that they bring to bear on the facts they have found."
- Ellen Ash Peters

Induction Category:
Politics, Government & Law

Born: 1930

Inducted: 1994

Town: West Hartford

Ellen Ash Peters’ remarkable legal career was capped by her appointment as a Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1978, the first woman to be named to the court. In 1984, Peters was elevated to Chief Justice, the highest position in the state’s judiciary.

Ellen Ash Peters was born in Berlin, Germany, and immigrated at age nine to the United States with her parents, fleeing Nazi Germany. She entered Hunter College High School in New York and graduated with honors from Swarthmore College and cum laude from Yale Law School in 1954. Peters was admitted to the Connecticut Bar in 1957 and to the U.S. District Court for Connecticut in 1965.

Two years after her graduation from Yale Law School, Peters became the first woman lawyer appointed to the faculty, distinguishing herself as an expert and leading scholar of contracts and commercial law, until her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1978. She continued to serve as an adjunct professor at Yale until 1984, when she was named Chief Justice. Peters served in that capacity until mandatory retirement in 1996. Upon leaving the bench, Peters’ colleagues hailed her as a visionary leader whose tenure as Chief Justice reflected her commitment to precision, excellence and justice for all. In addition, she was cited for her authorship of important state constitutional decisions, as well as the oversight of 10 new court facilities.

Peters was the first recipient of the Ella T. Grasso Distinguished Service Medal and has received numerous other honors and awards over the years, including the Judiciary Award of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers' Association, the Yale Law School Distinguished Service Medal and the Hartford College for Women Pioneer Woman Award. In 2002, the National Center for State Courts inducted retired Chief Justice Peters in the Warren E. Burger Society, which honors individuals for extraordinary commitment to the improvement of the administration of justice.

Peters has also served on numerous committees and boards, including The Connecticut Permanent Commission on the Status of Women (1973-1974). She was appointed to the national board of directors of the Conference of Chief Justices in 1987 and became its first woman president in 1994. An author of many articles and law texts, Peters now serves as a Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Connecticut Law School. Peters and her husband, Philip Blumberg, reside in West Hartford.

During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice

Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”

A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.

Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.

Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.

A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.

Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent.  Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.

The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.

Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.