WLP Executive Director Carol E. Tracy is the 2017 Honoree of the Sandra Day O’Connor Award. The Philadelphia Bar Association annually presents the Sandra Day O’Connor Award to a female attorney who has demonstrated superior legal talent, achieved significant legal accomplishments, and has furthered the advancement of women in both the profession and the community.
Below is Carol’s acceptance speech.
Honored guests, Thank you. I am indeed honored by the Sandra O’Connor Award, and I pay special tribute to the Women in the Profession committee who support the work of public interest lawyers.
If I have any talent, it is in hiring and supporting a dedicated and incredibly talented staff; I am also pretty good at attracting amazing board members, and have the luck of the Irish in having such great friends, inspiring colleagues, and most important being part of such a wonderful family, a family that had the good sense to expand the Irish gene pool to be inclusive of other Europeans, Asians and African Americans. Too all of you, I say thank you and know that I am standing on your shoulders as I receive this award.
The Women’s Law Project is about community: of public interest colleagues who collaborate instead of compete, of law firm partners that support and co-counsel with us, foundations that believe in our mission and fund us, and foremost, our clients who have had the courage to stand up for equality and justice.
I am a boomer. I had the great fortune of becoming conscious of the great need for equality and justice at the same time the country at large bloomed into this awareness. The mid-60s to mid-70s were years marked by unprecedented legal and cultural advancements for women.
In 1963, JFK signed the Equal Pay Act. The following year, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination in employment, passed into law. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally enfranchised African Americans. The same year, the Supreme Court issued a ruling decriminalizing the distribution of birth control, and “the pill,” was put on the market, a tiny seed that planted a revolution by separating sex from reproduction for women. Title IX was enacted in 1972, and women poured into professional schools and onto athletic fields, free to achieve goals of our own.
And then in 1973, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.
The following year, when the Women’s Law Project opened our doors, we were riding atop a wave of momentum and optimism. It felt like women could one day be free. And by women, I mean all women. And by free, I mean equal.
Then, almost immediately, we were met with formidable backlash.
And so we have seen these cycles ever since: legal advancements toward equality, and then the heavy hands of discrimination and entitlement trying to push us back.
We are seeing that very clearly now–though they are, in this case, tiny hands.
Despite opposition, we have stood our ground and forged legal victories and public policy reforms. I am proud of the range and depth of our accomplishments: from our early work stopping “illegitimate” from being stamped on birth certificates, to securing credit for married women, to preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to battered women, to restoring millions in child support to families, to securing the legal relationship between children and their LGBT parents, to assuring athletic opportunities for girls, to demanding that pregnant addicted women be treated rather than arrested, to being the catalyst for a new Family Courthouse in Philadelphia, to leading reform efforts to improve Philadelphia’s criminal justice system response to rape and domestic violence, and most importantly, to keeping abortion safe and legal.
I admit, it is a strange time to accept an award for progress.
It is safe to say that the legislative victories of yesteryear would not pass in today’s Congress or in most state houses. We are not only in a cycle of regression, it is the worst we’ve ever seen.
Indeed we are dealing with dark and foreboding days for women’s reproductive freedom, for the human rights of people of color, ethnic minorities and immigrants, not to mention the potential loss of basic health care for millions and harm to the environment.
Some say our very democracy is threatened by the current administration. I say it is more alive and robust than it has been in decades. In January, I had the honor of speaking to 50,000 people at the Women’s March on Philadelphia, one of 600 marches taking place around the world.
It was one of the most exciting moments of my career. It was a moment of clarity. Women are leading the resistance, because we know what it was like and, as they saying goes, we won’t go back.
They say all politics is local. My work, and the work of the Women’s Law Project, has deep roots in Philadelphia, and in Pennsylvania. We have always understood we need to be on the ground, working in communities where we live—a strategy that is key to the resistance we see now, in huddles, Indivisible groups, and living rooms, which is where it all started in my day, with the consciousness-raising feminist groups sharing experiences and realizing our problems were not simply anecdotes, but rather symptoms of a much larger, complex problem of systemic inequality.
Today, Philadelphia is a city with more protections than most. We are a sanctuary city. We protect pregnant workers and support breastfeeding mothers in the workplace, though federal and state laws leave them behind. We have a police department that opens their doors and case files to feminist lawyers and other advocates, a process the Canadian Minister of Justice recently called “the gold standard” of police accountability in sex crime investigations.
Philadelphia is standing as a bulwark against the regressive agenda of the federal administration. I am proud to be a Philadelphia lawyer, with all of you as my colleagues.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, “We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone.” I know that I don’t.
I also know that our quest for equality and justice will not only survive, but will thrive. Our daughters and sons, nieces and nephews are depending on us. I am proud of the work we have all accomplished together, and look forward to what lies ahead.
Thank you for this great honor.
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