Nadine Strossen: 'I Find the Pro-Censorship Feminists Politically Naive.' (Interview)

By Dreifus, Claudia | The Progressive, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Nadine Strossen: 'I Find the Pro-Censorship Feminists Politically Naive.' (Interview)


Dreifus, Claudia, The Progressive


At forty-three, Nadine Strossen, law professor, writer, legal theorist, is the youngest lawyer and the first woman to head the American Civil Liberties Union. As a young woman, Strossen had no dreams of lawyering. "I had ever met a woman lawyer," the dark-haired Strossen explains on a frozen New York winter afternoon in her offices at the New York Law School. "I had never met a woman who was a professional anything, other than teacher. I became vicariously ambitious for the males I knew. I was state champion debater and the only woman on my team. I told all my male debate partners that they should become lawyers. It never occurred to me that it was a possibility for me."

While a student at Radcliffe in the early 1970s, Strossen became involved in the legal battles for reproductive rights and grabbed some of the early wins of the women's movement by attending Harvard Law School. Her concerns as a lawyer were for women's rights and human rights, which led her to working for the ACLU. Ironically, she now finds herself defending free speech from the depredations of the Government and from feminists who have launched full-scale assaults on what they call pomography.

Strossen radiates an interesting kind of glamour born of selfconfidence. She is intellectual, combative, extremely sure of herself, unvictimized. She leads the life she wants to live, passionately, fearlessly. This is a law professor who goes to work wearing a shimmering silk outfit and a ton or two of silver freeform jewelry. If some feminists have declared that sensuality and glamour are part of their oppression, she insists on declaring it part of her being. One senses that in her politics and her personal style, Strossen is constantly telling the world, Hey, give freedom a break! "

Q: Your religious affiliation could almost be described as First Amendment Absolutist." Have you always been a civil libertarian?

Nadine Strossen: It goes back as far as I can remember. My maternal grandfather was a pacifist and a Marxist in World War 1, and he was made to stand in front of the town hall in West New York, New Jersey, so that passersby could come and spit at him. As a socialist, he was not oriented to the strong sense of individual rights that I have. But he was very much a humanist, an idealist.

My father grew up in Berlin, where he was involved in anti- Hitler youth organizations and was arrested and put into forced-labor camps. Americans liberated him from Buchenwaid, and he went to the United States on one of the very first ships of survivors. Later in life, my father became a committed conservative. When I think about it, I realize I selected out particular aspects of my family background that were most resonant to me. In my father's case, it was a belief in individual rights, a kind of libertarianism.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that my earliest memories are of having feelings about a sense of privacy, justice, and freedom of speech. I was constantly arguing with parents and teachers when I felt they were intruding on my rights or the rights of others. I was always deeply upset when I saw animals in kids' books being treated unfairly.

Q: You're the first woman to head the ACLU. Proud?

Strossen: Yes, very proud, From the begginnin, though, for the first time in the ACLU'S seventy-plus years, the top position is being held by a woman. From the beginning, though, women played an important role in the organization. In 1920, our founding mothers included Jane Addams, Crystal Eastman, and Jeannette Rankin. Many of our founders came out of the women's suffrage and peace movements. From the outset, the ACLU took women's-rights cases, including those of one of our founders, Mary Dennett, and of Margaret Sanger. They were prosecuted under "obscenity laws" for distributing birth-control information.

Q: Given the ACLU'S history, are you astonished by the contemporary call for censorship that is issuing from some feminists - the women's antipornography movement?

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