Battling for Liberty


Nadine Strossen '72 went to law school for the same reason that most young people became lawyers in the 1970s: she wanted to change the world.

"I'll quote the cliche we all used at the time: 'Law as a vehicle for social change,'" she says.

Twenty-five years later, Strossen has made social change her career. As the first female president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Strossen oversees the organization's campaign to preserve constitutionally mandated freedoms and acts as a spokesperson for the 275,000-member organization.

Strossen's activism had an early start. Born in Jersey City, N.J., she went to high school in Hopkins, Minn., and came to Radcliffe in 1968.

Originally a resident of Holmes Hall--now part of Pforzheimer House--Strossen moved to Winthrop House in 1970, when the houses first opened to women.

While living by the river, Strossen met her husband, Eli M. Noam '70, who was then a tutor in Adams House. After their graduation from Harvard Law School, Strossen and Noam married in 1980. Noam is currently a professor of economics and finance at Columbia University.

While Strossen was an undergraduate, Harvard did not have a civil-liberties organization. But Strossen says she was passionately involved in the main activist issues of the day while in college.

"The rallying cries were reproductive freedom and the anti-war movement," she says.

Even in college, her beliefs ran to civil libertarianism--an unpopular political stance in the 1970s.

"I definitely was a civil libertarian," she remembers. "I took a lot of grief for being a civil libertarian and a liberal because it was considered much too conservative."

Today, although the group is formally non-partisan, many Americans consider the ACLU a liberal organization, a label Strossen rejects.

"I think the terminology is really quite meaningless," she says. "To the extent that conservative means conserving fundamental principles, the ACLU is the most conservative organization in the United States."

Strossen says she does not remember when she joined the ACLU because she always saw it as the foremost civil liberties activist group.

But after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1975 and going into private practice, Strossen began to volunteer at the ACLU, working on civil liberties cases.

Today, she is still a volunteer for the group. The national presidency, a post she has held since 1991, is only her hobby, in a sense. Strossen also holds a tenured law professorship at New York Law School, where she teaches courses on constitutional law and international human rights.

Since her years in college, Strossen says, the ACLU has made significant progress on several major civil-liberties issues, including the right to abortion--established in Roe v. Wade in 1973--and recognition of gender discrimination.

"The strides that have been made on equality under the law since I was a student have been tremendous," Strossen says. "Not that we should rest on our laurels, however. I'm working around the clock sometimes to make sure we don't backslide."

Today, she says, certain civil liberties are in danger in the U.S.

"I'm very dispirited about the current Supreme Court and the federal courts," she says. "They're nowhere near the civil-rights champions we had in the Warren Court."

She quickly adds that the judiciary is, however, still her "favorite branch of the government."

Strossen says she has never lost the faith in the power of law, which first drove her to become an attorney.

"I continue to think that our legal system is the most marvelous instrument to interpret the constitution, which says that all men--which I interpret to mean women as well--are created equal," she says.

In addition to frequent media appearances and speeches, Strossen also visits ACLU campus chapters. In addition, she visits other civil-liberties groups on college campuses, including the autonomous Civil Liberties Union of Harvard, which she lauds as a particularly active group.

"One of the things Harvard's student chapter has done is to actually be a force for civil-liberties issues on campus," she says. "I love the activism of the Harvard students."

Although as president she no longer argues cases in court, Strossen says she does take special interest in several current issues.

"As an academic and an activist, the issues that have been important to me are all the First Amendment issues," she says. The ACLU is currently involved in a Supreme Court case against U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno involving Internet censorship.

Strossen says she focuses in particular on the debates over equal rights, gender equality, sexual orientation, reproductive freedom and privacy.

Strossen has written a book on free speech entitled Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women's Rights. In addition to speaking out for the First Amendment, Strossen says she also tries to incorporate civil liberties into the courses she teaches.

Colleagues say Strossen has had a significant impact both as a professor and as an advocate for civil liberties.

"She's really been out front on the issues, especially contentious issues such as pornography," says Kristin Booth Glen, the dean of the City University of New York Law School (CUNYLS), where Strossen was a colleague.

Booth says the pleasure Strossen takes from her job is reflected in part by the attention she gives to students.

"She's somebody who everybody likes--a wonderful lecturer and teacher, very inspiring," Booth says. "The staff really likes her."

Strossen says she does not plan to quit teaching anytime soon, despite her position with the ACLU.

The average tenure of an ACLU president--Strossen is only the sixth leader of the organization--is about 15 years. Strossen says she plans to continue her advocacy even after she steps down as president.

"I can't top it in terms of my personal values, but I also believe in passing the torch of leadership," she says.

Strossen says she will continue to teach law and will still do pro bono work for the ACLU, as she has done throughout her career.

"It is absolutely essential that there be some organization that is there to champion all of these rights for everyone," she says.