“She never put herself in the limelight to lead and yet she was a leader.” This is how Navajo educational leader Joy Hanley, a longtime colleague and friend, described Lucy Kramer Cohen. During the 1930s Lucy campaigned for the rights of Native Americans; she continued to support American Indian causes for the next 50 years. Although she preferred to work behind the scenes, Lucy was exceptionally warm and outgoing — talking with people wherever she went, making friends, learning about their lives.
Lucy was my aunt — the lively and magnetic center of a large circle of family and friends. I grew up in Washington, DC, and our families were often together. I remember vividly that Lucy and her husband Felix would invite delegations of Indians visiting Washington home for dinner. Lucy’s two daughters and we cousins were enthralled as we watched and listened to the older members of the delegation drum and dance after dinner.
Born in Brooklyn in 1907 to Aaron and Annie Frankel Kramer, Jewish immigrants from Austro-Hungary, Lucy Kramer was eager to learn about everything. At three she would wake her parents to read to her — so they taught her to read. Her aunt, Fanny Kramer Grossman, introduced the members of the younger generation to culture and modern ideas with books, trips to museums and concerts, dancing lessons with the children of Isadora Duncan. Advanced in her outlook, Aunt Fanny arranged for Ethical Culture Society teachers to come to the house to educate the children about sex and reproduction.
Lucy described her father and aunt as steeped in the Haskalah movement, the “Jewish Enlightenment.” “You began to question religion... You became much more interested in the world at large.” Aaron and Fanny were strong supporters of socialism as well as democracy; Lucy followed their lead, although she expanded her knowledge and her observance of Jewish traditions as time went on.
Lucy Kramer was part of an early generation of educated women who wanted to have careers, but the Great Depression and sexism made it difficult to find jobs. She studied mathematics and anthropology at Barnard College in the 1920s and worked for Columbia professor Franz Boas, a founder of modern anthropology. With a Master’s Degree in mathematics from Columbia and a background in anthropology, economics, statistics and languages, she expected to have both a professional career and a family.
Lucy Kramer and Felix Cohen met when they were both 18 and were immediately attracted to each other. After Felix completed a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia, they married. They were 24; the year was 1931 — a terrible time. During this period and throughout their lives together, they worked for important causes — organizing meetings, raising money, writing articles against lynchings of African-Americans in the South and against totalitarianism, whether fascist or communist.
After the election of Franklin Roosevelt as President, Felix was hired to draft what became the Indian Reorganization Act. Lucy was knowledgeable about Native American cultures and about economics; she and Felix discussed how to reform the legal and economic opportunities for American Indians. Lucy became thoroughly immersed in the work of the “Indian New Deal” — Roosevelt’s effort to improve the conditions in which American Indians lived. Often Lucy worked as a volunteer, lending her professional skills to assisting Felix or other members of the Interior Department staff. She did research and wrote articles; for example, one hundred years after about the tragic removal of the Cherokee people from their lands, she wrote about the “Trail of Tears.” Lucy traveled to Indian Country — meeting people, learning about their lives, and making life-long friends.
Felix was asked to write The Handbook of Federal Indian Law; the Handbook became the foundation for later efforts by Indian tribes to protect and regain their rights. Lucy was part of the team; research she had done for Interior Secretary Harold Ickes became two chapters of the Handbook.
World War II brought an end to the “Indian New Deal.” Government attention shifted to the war effort. Lucy got her first permanent fulltime job at the War Labor Board. By the end of the war, Roosevelt was dead, and the next administration reversed his progressive policies towards native peoples. Felix left the Interior Department to work on behalf of Indian tribes. Lucy was particularly proud of her work for Helen Gahagan Douglas, the liberal Democratic Congresswoman from California. Douglas was defeated in her run for the U.S. Senate by Richard Nixon, who smeared her as a Communist.
In 1953, when Lucy and Felix were 46, Felix discovered that he had mesothelioma, a malignant cancer of the chest lining. They decided to keep his illness secret. Felix continued to work; Lucy quit her job to help out in his office and keep an eye on him. When Felix died, Lucy did her best to hide her grief. She looked for work to support the family.
She re-made her life, discovering a new talent — for drawing and painting. Her drawings were hung in juried shows and sometimes won awards. She made new friends. She developed a career in the United States Public Health Services. Here, too, she worked to improve people’s lives. She distinguished herself so thoroughly that, when she reached official retirement age, she was re-hired on yearly contracts that lasted until she was 82.
Lucy never flagged in her determination to honor Felix’s work and to fight for Indian causes. She served for 40 years on the Board of the AAIA, the Association on American Indian Affairs. Joy Hanley, Board Secretary and Past President, recalled that Lucy had supported and encouraged her to be the first Indian woman to take on the leadership of the Board. Lucy edited and published The Legal Conscience: Selected Papers of Felix S. Cohen and assisted scholars of Felix’s work. In 2005, when a revised edition of what is now called Felix S. Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law was published, it was dedicated to her: “For her contributions to the first edition of this work and her constant support of the project.” Lucy died in 2007, a few months before her 100th birthday.