Crystal Eastman is known as the ACLU’s founding mother. She co-founded and served as the director of the American Union Against Militarism and then generated the idea for that organization’s National Civil Liberties Bureau, which became the ACLU. Yet few people know her as a preeminent champion of most of the major social movements in the early 20th century — not just civil liberties but women’s suffrage and rights, pacifism, internationalism, and socialism — who frequently created and led multiple organizations simultaneously. Eastman’s legacy is still very much part of our organization’s DNA.
When the ACLU first opened its doors in 1920, most states criminalized birth control and abortion care, and it was a federal crime to distribute information about contraception through the U.S. mail. Mary Ware Dennett, an early ACLU member, co-founded the National Birth Control League in 1915 together with Jessie Ashley and Clara Gruening Stillman. She was arrested in 1929 for distributing a sex education pamphlet called “The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People,” which the government considered obscene. The ACLU defended in the resulting case, United States v. Dennett. The case was decided by a federal appeals court and helped change the definition of obscenity.
In the beginning of the 1930s, after becoming one of the only female board members, Dorothy Kenyon tried repeatedly and without success to convince the rest of the male-dominated board to take on the issue of abortion. In the 1960s, Harriet Pilpel joined the national board and joined Kenyon in advocating for the organization to pursue abortion rights. She brought the issue to the ACLU’s 1964 Biennial Conference in Boulder, Colorado. Her campaign was successful and she formed a friendship with Kenyon. Details around the ACLU’s involvement in abortion advocacy came together slowly, but the two board members created the foundation for what is now a central issue area for the ACLU.
After Eleanor Roosevelt asked her to serve on the Committee on Political and Civil Rights for the Commission on the Status of Women, one of her reports for the committee caught the attention of Dorothy Kenyon. In 1965, Kenyon and James Farmer successfully nominated Murray for the ACLU board. Murray, Kenyon, and the very few other women on the ACLU board fought to include more gender discrimination cases in their equality litigation. They pushed for the ACLU to support the Equal Rights Amendment. As a Black woman, Murray drew from her personal experience to advocate against gender-based and racial discrimination, both in the ACLU and elsewhere. She often spoke of what we now call “intersectionality,” or the compounding experience of racism and sexism that disenfranchises Black women. Murray and Kenyon’s activism led to the creation of the Women’s Rights Project in 1971.
The National Board of the ACLU declared women's rights its top legal and legislative priority, creating the national Women's Rights Project in 1971. The board asked Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a law professor at Rutgers University, to become the director of the new project. Because of her simultaneous work at Rutgers, Ginsburg wanted a partner to run it with her. She asked Brenda Feigen, who was the National Legislative Vice President for the National Organization for Women (NOW) and about to launch Ms. Magazine with Gloria Steinem. Feigen agreed and started at the ACLU in 1972. Together, the two directors fought for women’s rights in the courts and made the issue one of the ACLU’s calling cards.
In 1992, Kathryn Kolbert helped the ACLU fight to uphold abortion rights in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the Supreme Court ultimately upheld most provisions of a Pennsylvania law that imposed onerous restrictions on the right to abortion. In that same year, Kolbert, along with colleagues from the ACLU, co-founded the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, now known as the Center for Reproductive Rights. From 1992 to 1997, Kolbert headed the legal and policy teams, helping the organization win landmark cases strengthening state abortion protections. In 2021, she co-wrote the book Controlling Women: What We Must Do Now to Save Reproductive Freedom.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is now in her sixth term as the Congresswoman for the District of Columbia. Prior to her political career, President Jimmy Carter appointed Norton to serve as chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and two New York City mayors appointed her as chair of the city’s Human Rights Commission. She was the first woman in both positions. Norton began working for the ACLU fresh out of law school. She helped argue the landmark Supreme Court case Carroll v. Town of Princess Anne, which is considered a victory in First Amendment litigation. Following her career with the ACLU, she went on to advocate for full congressional voting representation and for full democracy for the people of the District of Columbia.