Thursday, March 16, 2017

I Wear a Badge: Bessie Margolin, Alpha Epsilon Phi

From U.S. Department of Labor (credit)
The theme for Women’s History Month in 2017 is “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Business and Labor.” Throughout March, we’ll be sharing the stories of sorority women who made history in these areas. The efforts of these sorority women advance the cause of all women, and we are grateful for their efforts.

Labor law trailblazer Bessie Margolin was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1909 to Russian, Jewish immigrants. Change came quickly to Margolin at a young age; at the age of two, her family moved to Tennessee and then her mother died. Shortly after, she and her brother were sent to live at the Jewish Children’s Home in New Orleans.

She received a bachelor’s degree from Newcomb College in 1929, a women’s college and affiliate of Tulane University, where she became a member of Alpha Epsilon Phi. After earning a law degree from Tulane, she went on to get a doctorate in law from Yale University in 1933.

At this time, law firms didn’t hire female attorneys, so Margolin turned to the government. She began working for the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned corporation providing electric utilities to the Tennessee Valley region.

During her time at the TVA, she worked as a research attorney, an associate attorney and eventually was promoted to senior attorney after having organized evidence, researched legal issues and written briefs for two cases that were seen by United States Supreme Court.

Margolin left the TVA for the U.S. Department of Labor in 1939 and after learning the ins and outs of the Fair Labor Standards Act, she was promoted to assistant solicitor in charge of Supreme Court appellate litigation.

Following World War II, Margolin worked for the U.S. Department of War during the Nuremburg Trials, drafting original regulation for the military tribunals.

By the 1960s, Margolin had garnered enough acclaim to be recommended to President Lyndon B. Johnson for appointment to the U.S. Court of Claims. In 1966, Margolin assisted in the founding of the National Organization for Women, nicknamed NOW.

She retired in 1972 having argued 24 cases in front of the Supreme Court and winning 21 of them. Following her retirement, Margolin served as an arbitrator and occasionally taught at George Washington University. She died in Virginia on June 19, 1996.

Margolin was known for her independence and intelligence in a field dominated by men. Marlene Trestman, author of “Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin” said, “[she] played the woman card because it was the only one she was dealt.” Instead of allowing her femininity to be a chip on the shoulder of her career, Margolin used her status as a strong woman to blaze a trail for other women to follow in her footsteps.

  • Earnst, D. (2013, May 22). Bessie Margolin (1909-1996). Legal History Blog [Web log]. Retrieved from
  • Book, B. (2016, August 31). Breaking glass ceilings: Bessie Margolin and “the woman card.” Jewesses with Attitude [Web log]. Retrieved from