Collaborators for Justice
Our usual practice at the Jewish Women’s Archive is to study the obituary page to learn about Jewish women lives. But last week, I was riveted by the life of Jane Bolin, the first black woman to become a judge in the United States. It was daunting just to contemplate her courage and determination in qualifying herself for this role. She was one of only two African-American students in the Class of 1928 at Wellesley College where she graduated in the top 20 of her class. She then went on to Yale Law School where she was one of three women in her class and the only African-American.
In 1937, Bolin went to work as Assistant Corporation Counsel for the Domestic Relations Court of New York City, and in 1939 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed her to serve as a judge on that court. She served for almost forty years until the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Reading about Bolin, I was immediately struck by the parallels of her career with that of Justine Wise Polier, who also attended Yale Law School and who LaGuardia appointed to the Domestic Relations Court in 1935, making her the first woman judge above the rank of magistrate in New York State.
There was more that brought the two women together than their positions on the same court. Neither of them wore judicial robes out of a desire to make the children with whom they worked feel more comfortable. More importantly, they helped make the court into an institution that was more about treatment than punishment. They worked together to address the institutional racism of the prevailing justice and childcare systems – succeeding in banning consideration of race or religion in the assignment of probation officers and in barring public and private child-care agencies from segregating children on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity.
The stories of Polier and Bolin are most often told as individual stories of remarkable trailblazing accomplishment, which they certainly are. But I believe their stories become even more powerful when we recognize how a black woman and a Jewish woman, both pioneers in their own right, worked together to create a more humane and equitable justice system.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr., Day when so much work remains to be done, it’s striking to think of these two women coming together in the 1930s to work effectively for social change. We can’t all be pioneers, but can we also find opportunities to collaborate across color and religious lines? Is this easier or harder to do in 2007 than in the past? Where do you find opportunities to make a difference?