Gladys Kessler, Judge Who Curbed Deceptive Tobacco Ads, Dies at 85


“I knew I had to be self-supporting, which was very important to me,” she said in an interview with the American Bar Association in 2013. “I knew I wasn’t fit for certain jobs that women were expected to take, like teaching, secretarial work. And I wanted a job that would be intellectually challenging for a lifetime.”

She graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in 1959. During her third year at Harvard Law School, she found that gender discrimination prevented her from getting any job offers. One of her professors, Derek Bok (who went on to be president of Harvard University), set up an interview for her at the National Labor Relations Board, where she spent two years in its appellate division after she received her law degree in 1962.

Fascinated by politics, she served as a legislative assistant to Senator Harrison A. Williams, Democrat of New Jersey, from 1964 to 1966, and to Rep. Jonathan Bingham, Democrat of New York, from 1966 to 1968. After working for a year as a special assistant to the director of staff relations at the New York City Board of Education, she was a founder of a public interest law firm in Washington, where she practiced from 1969 to 1977, representing consumer, environmental and tenant groups.

“We argued in the Court of Appeals all the time,” Judge Kessler said in the A.B.A. interview, “and we were doing really wonderful things.”

In 1977, she was appointed as a Superior Court judge in Washington, where she served for 17 years.

She was a founder of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund (now the National Partnership For Women & Families) and president of the National Association of Women Judges in 1982.

Despite the gains that had been made by women on the bench, Judge Kessler said that sexism continued in the courts, particularly in the ways that judges were dealing with female lawyers.

“Many judges in this country treat women in a condescending manner, which instantly sends signals to a jury,” she told The New York Times in 1984. She said that the Association of Women Judges felt a responsibility to educate their colleagues, male and female, about how sexism can influence a jury’s verdict.



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