Throughout her distinguished career, The Honorable Patricia Wald has shaped policy and championed justice in the U.S. and around the globe. As the first woman appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Judge Wald paved the way for future generations of women in the legal profession. After her retirement from the federal bench, she went on to serve on the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, hearing cases involving the former Yugoslavia. Known for her practical handling of cases involving the rights of women, children and the poor and her trailblazing approach to international law, her career in public service has had a lasting impact by showing the humanitarian role the law can play both at home and abroad.
Patricia McGowan was born on September 16, 1928, in Torrington, Conn., the daughter of Joseph McGowan and Margaret O’Keefe. Shortly after her birth, Joseph McGowan left his family leaving Margaret to raise their daughter. Alone and lacking resources, Margaret moved in with her mother and began working in a factory. Though she had not finished high school and no one in the family had ever attended college, she was determined that her daughter would go to college and have the opportunity to lead a different kind of life.
After graduating from high school, Patricia McGowan won a scholarship to Connecticut College for Women where she was encouraged by one of her teachers to consider law school. In 1948, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and first in her class and won a scholarship to Yale University Law School. Her summer work in factories had provided her with income to pay for college, but also gave her a keen understanding of the labor movement and the social needs of blue-collar workers. These experiences inspired her to pursue labor law, which could help make conditions better for working-class people. One of only 11 women in her class, she excelled and became Case Editor of the Yale Law Journal, graduating with honors in 1951. Two law school professors recommended her for a federal clerkship with Judge Jerome Frank, on the Second Circuit. Though it was unusual for women to have federal clerkships at the time, Judge Frank believed in giving women opportunities and the experience proved invaluable.
During her third year of law school, Patricia McGowan met and fell in love with fellow law student Bob Wald who also took a clerkship after graduation. The couple married in 1952 and moved to Norfolk, Va., where Bob was stationed with the Navy. Patricia Wald worked briefly for the Washington, D.C. firm Arnold, Fortas, and Porter before taking ten years off to raise five children. Throughout this time, she continued to pursue professional interests, researching and consulting on poverty issues and the criminal justice system.
In 1964, Wald co-authored a book, Bail in the United States, which helped to reform the nation’s bail system. This work led to her appointment by President Johnson to the President’s Commission on Crime in D.C. Three years later, in 1967, she re-entered the legal profession as an attorney in the Department of Justice’s Office of Criminal Justice. In 1968, following the change of administration, Wald left the Justice Department and joined the innovative Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C. Her interest in the root causes of crime and violence led to further research on drug abuse and, in 1971, she turned her attention toward public interest law, joining the Center for Law and Social Policy, one of only two public interest firms in existence at the time. She worked on cases primarily involving children, mental health, and disability rights.
When President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, he was determined to appoint more women to his administration. Wald was appointed Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs and served in this post until her appointment by President Carter to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1979. Though her confirmation was not a smooth process, the U.S. Senate finally approved her nomination and Judge Wald became the first woman appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court, often referred to as the nation’s second most important court after the Supreme Court.
Judge Wald remained on the Court for twenty years and authored more than 800 opinions. In 1986, she became Chief Judge. While on the Court, Wald heard cases involving every kind of administrative law from energy cases to presidential directives and freedom of information cases to national security issues. Her experience on the court provided a fascinating view into every facet of public policy and gave her the opportunity to serve as mentor to countless young lawyers and clerks. In addition to her responsibilities as a federal judge, in 1994, Wald became active in the American Bar Association’s Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (CEELI), designed to provide technical advice for establishing new judicial structures in the new democracies emerging from the former Soviet Union.
When she retired from the federal bench in 1999, Wald was appointed U.S. representative to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague and served a two-year term on the court charged with hearing cases related to the former Yugoslavia. This new assignment posed many challenges for Judge Wald and her colleagues as much of International Law had not yet been written. She quickly rose to a leadership role within the court and through her leadership helped to establish standards and procedures to ensure the rule of law and the respect of human rights.
Since leaving the International Criminal Tribunal, Judge Wald has continued to serve in many capacities, in both the public policy and human rights arenas. In 2002, she became chair of the Open Society’s Justice Initiative Board. Two years later, President George W. Bush appointed her to the President’s Commission on Intelligence Capabilities of the U.S. Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, an independent commission charged with evaluating the intelligence and policy decisions that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq in. In 2010, Judge Wald began serving on the Constitution Project’s Guantanamo Task Force.
The Honorable Patricia Wald has received innumerable honors and awards including more than 20 honorary degrees. In 2002, she was honored by the International Human Rights Law Group for her lifelong commitment to Human Rights. In 2004, she received the American Lawyer Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award, and, in 2008, was the recipient of the American Bar Association Medal, the organization’s top honor, presented to an individual who has “rendered exceptionally distinguished service to the cause of American jurisprudence.” In 2011, she was recognized by the Constitution Project as the 2011 Constitutional Champion.
Patricia Wald was active in countless professional organizations and commissions, including serving on the board of the Open Society’s Justice Initiative as well as the Advisory Board of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and was recognized as a champion of justice around the world. Her trailblazing career has served as an inspiration to generations of public interest lawyers and women entering the legal profession.
Wald passed away on January 12, 2019, at age 90.
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.