Joan Claybrook

By Conniff, Ruth | The Progressive, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Joan Claybrook

Conniff, Ruth, The Progressive

If Ralph Nader is the father of the modern public interest movement, Joan Claybrook is the movement's mother. As president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, Claybrook oversees research, litigation, and lobbying to promote not only consumer protection and product safety but also campaign finance reform, redress of corporate abuses, and citizens' rights.

Claybrook grew up in the 1940s in Baltimore. Her father, a lawyer and city council member, was a strong advocate for public housing, legal services for the poor, and racial integration. Claybrook's first political experience was walking around Baltimore wearing a sandwich board for her dad's campaign. Later, she remembers sitting in his council meetings and watching one of his colleagues sleep through the proceedings. He would set an alarm clock to wake himself up when it was time to go home. "I learned about the good and the bad of the legislative process very early on," she says.

Claybrook graduated from Goucher College in Baltimore in 1959 and became one of a handful of women in her generation to rise to a high-level position in the federal government. After college she worked at the Social Security Administration, preparing reports for President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women. In 1965, she was chosen as an American Political Science Association Congressional fellow and went to work on Capitol Hill, where she helped draft the first major piece of auto safety legislation to pass Congress.

Shortly after she arrived in Washington, D.C., Claybrook met "this extremely shy young man," Ralph Nader, who had just written Unsafe at Any Speed, the book that prompted a massive change in consumer protection laws, started the consumer-advocacy movement, and propelled General Motors to send spies after Nader in a desperate effort to discredit him. Claybrook became close friends with Nader, sharing information with him as she worked for Representative James MacKay, Democrat of Georgia, and Senator Walter Mondale, Democrat of Minnesota, to help draft the auto safety law. The new law created the National Traffic Safety Bureau, and Claybrook went to work for that agency in 1966. Somehow, she also found time to attend Georgetown Law School at night. In 1970, she went to work for Nader. She created Public Citizen's lobbying arm, Congress Watch, in 1973, to push for legislation on health, safety, and consumer protection. She left Public Citizen temporarily, from 1977 to 1981, to become the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Jimmy Carter.

Claybrook co-authored two books, Retreat From Safety: Reagan's Attack on America's Health (Pantheon, 1984) and Freedom From Harm: The Civilizing Influence of Health, Safety, and Environmental Regulations (Public Citizen, 1986). She is also a famously good cook, hosting large dinners for friends and relatives in her home near the National Cathedral in Washington. She has four nephews, whom she has taken on trips all over the world.

I spoke with Claybrook in the nineteenth-century, red brick building in Dupont Circle that Public Citizen owns. We sat in the conference room under a crystal chandelier, sipping coffee and talking about Ralph Nader, the rise of the public interest movement, and Claybrook's continuing war on corporate power, which, she says, "is the greatest threat to our democracy."

Q: When did you know you wanted to become a consumer advocate?

Joan Claybrook: I didn't think I was going to be a consumer advocate until after I met Ralph Nader. I was working for a freshman member of Congress, Jim MacKay of Atlanta, Georgia, whose seat had been created when the one-man-one-vote Supreme Court decision came down in 1962.

He had just read Ralph Nader's book, and he lived in the suburbs, where a lot of kids were killed in car crashes. So he asked me to call Ralph and get him to come down and see us. So I did. And this extremely shy young man walked in. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Joan Claybrook


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.