In Fair Labor Lawyer, former attorney Marlene Trestman recounts the life of Bessie Margolin, the "first and only woman whose name appeared on the Supreme Court brief of any of the New Deal cases" (56). Although Margolin has not previously received scholarly attention, during her lifetime she elicited enormous interest from the press, which saw her as a "pioneering professional woman" and the "quintessential lady lawyer" (xiii). Drawing on personal papers, oral histories and rich archival evidence, Trestman painstakingly traces Margolin's life trajectory and her significant contributions to modern American law.
Born into a Russian Jewish immigrant family in early twentieth-century New York, Bessie Margolin spent her childhood in a Jewish orphanage in New Orleans following her mother's premature death. As Trestman shows with impressive detail, twelve years at the Jewish Orphans' Home left a profound impact on Margolin's personality and career. Through her experiences at the orphanage and at the Isidore Newman Manual Training School, an elite boarding school run by the New Orleans Jewish community, Margolin acquired the values of hard work and autonomy and knowledge that enabled her subsequent educational pursuits. She excelled at her studies, earning degrees from Newcomb College, Tulane Law School and Yale Law School. At Tulane, where she graduated second, Margolin was the only woman in her class. Although Margolin continued on the path of academic excellence at Yale, working as a research assistant for renowned legal scholar Ernest G. Lorenzen and earning a doctorate in law, her gender and religion prevented her from obtaining a teaching position or a law firm job after graduation. Consequently, she opted for government service, which offered greater professional opportunities for women than the private sector.
Margolin launched her legal career in the 1930s, at a time "when only 2 percent (3,385) of America's attorneys were female and far fewer were Jewish and from the South" (xiv). Her entrance into the professional world coincided with the start of the New Deal, which turned out to be felicitous timing. While her work as an attorney for the Tennessee Valley Authority paved the way for a remarkably successful career with the federal government, Margolin proved one of the New Deal's best advocates, owing at least in part to the progressive ideals inherited from the Reform Judaism of her childhood. From 1933 to 1939, Margolin [End Page 323] successfully defended the constitutionality of the TVA before entering the United States Department of Labor, where she spent most of her legal career and made major contributions to American labor law. She fought for increased wages and reduced work hours through the constitutional defense of the Fair Labor Standards Act and tirelessly strove to impose new standards on the courts to better protect American workers.
The author makes her most important contribution in her nuanced portrayal of Margolin's professional identity as a female attorney. In spite of navigating an almost exclusively male milieu, Margolin led a very successful career. Aside from becoming the first female assistant solicitor of the Department of Labor, she was also the rare woman who argued in front of the Supreme Court in the 1940s. Trestman asserts that throughout her legal education and career, Margolin consistently sought to take advantage of her feminine attributes rather than downplaying them. Yet Trestman's narrative also shows the drawbacks that professional women faced. Margolin perceived marriage and professional success to be incompatible and chose to prioritize her career and financial independence.
Another noteworthy aspect of Margolin's life was her ambivalent relationship to feminism. According to the author, Margolin rejected radical feminism in favor of a "reasonable, and mainstream, approach" (40). However, toward the end of her career, she did become an outspoken advocate for women's rights. As a founding member of the National Organization for Women, Margolin also won the first appeals under the Equal Pay and Age Discrimination in Employment Acts in the 1960s. A more thorough discussion of the types of feminism that Margolin was...