Edith I. Spivack
1910 – 2005
A leading member of the Law Department of the City of New York for seventy years, Edith Spivack served as a pioneer female lawyer and a role model for generations of women. The daughter of a seller of cardboard boxes, she was born on April 19, 1910 and grew up in the Bronx. At the age of nineteen she graduated from Barnard College and became one of the first female graduates of Columbia University Law School in 1932. There she met and married a fellow law student, Bernard H. Goldstein; theirs was the first marriage of fellow students at the institution. He pursued a career in private practice, and died in 1998. They had two daughters, Amy (Bass) and Rita (Frank), and four grandchildren.
It was impossible for Spivack, who had retained her maiden name, to find a job in a law firm upon her graduation from Columbia. She attributed her many rejections not only to the Depression but also to her being a woman and a Jew. After Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor of New York in 1934, civil service exams replaced political appointments and she was appointed to the city’s Law Department, where she served as an unpaid volunteer until she was hired, after a year, at half salary. She worked in the office for seventy years, serving under ten mayors and twenty-three corporation counsels. It was a responsible job: as of 2005 the Law Department, the legal advocate of New York City, had 650 lawyers, making it the third largest law firm in the city. As a member of the department Spivack represented the city before the state Court of Appeals and also argued before the United States Supreme Court. In the 1970s she negotiated loans to bail the city out of bankruptcy. In the Penn Central Railroad bankruptcy she helped collect millions of dollars in real estate taxes due the city—tax law was her specialty—and she successfully argued other major tax cases. She was professional, energetic and forceful, and as former mayor Ed Koch recalled, blessed with a creative legal mind.
A colleague, Jeffrey Friedlander, the assistant corporation counsel, commented that Spivack’s broad legal knowledge, administrative ability and extensive institutional memory were “the support behind the men who had the titles.” He added that had Spivack been a man, “she would not have worked in obscurity for the many decades she did.” (NY Times, July 28, 2005). Still, despite her obscurity, as Michael A. Cardozo, the Corporation Counsel, summed up her influence, “She had an extraordinary impact on both the office historically and the female lawyers here.” (Newsday, July 28, 2005). As he stated in 2002, “Today, thanks to her leadership, more than fifty percent of the people employed in the New York City Law Department are women” (New York City Law Department, Office of the Corporation Counsel).
In 1995 Spivack retired from her position, but missed her work and the city so much that she returned to work on a volunteer basis four days a week as executive assistant emerita. She continued that routine until 2004. Edith Spivack died from complications of a fall on July 26, 2005.
Although like many of her generation she labored for decades with little acknowledgment, Spivack did earn recognition in her later years. She was honored by the New York State Bar in 1997 and received the Lawrence A. Wein Prize in Social Responsibility in 2002. In 1998 the New York County Lawyers’ Association Women’s Rights Committee established an annual award in her name.
NY Times, obituary, July 28, 2005; Newsday, obituary, July 28, 2005; Cardozo, Michael A. “Honoring Edith I. Spivack and Sixty Years of Law Department Service.” New York City Law Department, Office of the Corporation Counsel, 2002. Web: http://nyc.gov/html/law/home.html