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Birth of Harriet Fleischl Pilpel, pioneer for the right to privacy and free speech

December 2, 1911

Lawyer Harriet Fleischl Pilpel provides the historical link between birth control activist Margaret Sanger and feminist Betty Friedan.

Born in the Bronx on this date, she graduated from Vassar College in 1932 and received a master’s degree in international relations (1933) and a law degree (1936) from Columbia University.   She joined the law firm of Greenbaum, Wolff and Ernst, where she worked with Sanger’s attorney Morris Ernst and became involved with reproductive freedom litigation.

Pilpel was profoundly influenced by arguments that the right to privacy holding in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)—that the state may not peek into the bedroom and forbid the use of birth control—could be extended to contend that a woman had a fundamental right to abortion. She participated in the swell of activism and litigation that sought to link the two issues in legislatures, in courts, and in the public imagination. Finally, as the abortion issue came to the forefront in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she helped shift the emphasis of activists from reform to repeal of legislative restrictions on abortion.

Pilpel organized a challenging moot court practice before both argument and re-argument phases of Roe v. Wade, the case that legalized abortion in America.  Pilpel also authored the Planned Parenthood Foundation of America’s amicus curiae brief in the case.  She was a member of the Association for the Study of Abortion, a scholarly group devoted to the study of various reform measures, and she testified before both state and federal legislatures on abortion concerns.  Pilpel favored locating a woman’s constitutional right to control her reproductive choices in the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, rather than the First.  Her PPFA briefs concerning abortion emphasized the linkage between the right to privacy in decisions and actions concerning contraception and fertility, established in Griswold, and the putative right to a safe, legal abortion, which would be established in Roe.

A great advocate of free speech, Pilpel represented Edna Ferber, Betty Friedan, Billy Graham, Jerome Kern, Alfred Kinsey, Erich Maria Remarque, Mel Brooks, and Svetlana Alliluyeva (Stalin's daughter) in First Amendment cases.  She was a very public advocate who wrote and lectured widely and frequently took on William F. Buckley on his Firing Line television show.  She was also active in the American Jewish Congress during its days as a force for civil liberties and civil rights. 

New York University law professor Sylvia Law wrote, "She was a brilliant legal tactician with a deep knowledge of the nuance of doctrine, but she was also acutely attuned to political opinion, organizational politics, the press, religious feeling, and the broad cultural forces that shape constitutional principle.”

Harriet Fleischl Pilpel died on April 23, 1991.

Sources: December 2: General Counsel for Women’s Rights,” Jewdayo.

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Harriet Fleischl Pilpel
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Harriet Fleischl Pilpel.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Birth of Harriet Fleischl Pilpel, pioneer for the right to privacy and free speech." (Viewed on December 14, 2017) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/02/1911/birth-of-harriet-fleischl-pilpel-pioneer-for-right-to-privacy-and-free-speech>.

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