The progress we have made in the United States regarding gender equality is largely the product of the trailblazers who came before us. These women paved the way for many of the feminist movements taking place today by fighting for their rights and the rights of generations to come. One woman, Judge Phyllis A. Kravitch, is a shining example, as she battled workplace prejudice in a completely male-dominated world to build a monumental legal career in the 1940s.
Phyllis Adele Kravitch was born in Savannah, Georgia on August 23rd, 1920, and attended Savannah High School. She then graduated Goucher College in Baltimore in 1941, and after struggling to find a law school that would admit her, she was accepted at her father’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.
Kravitch spent decades overcoming obstacles. She embarked on her legal career in Georgia in 1944, even though women were not allowed to sit on juries in her state until 1953. Despite graduating second in her class at UPenn, in an interview with American Bar Association she revealed that she was turned down upon applying for a clerkship at the Supreme Court because no woman had ever clerked there before. For fear of unconventionality (and because of blatant sexism) Kravitch was denied the job that she deserved.
After being turned down by employers several times for being a woman and for being Jewish, Kravitch decided to head back to Georgia to work for her father, Aaron Kravitch. He, too, had a law degree, and, like his daughter, he was quite progressive. His work focused on helping black and indigenous clients in need of representation.
Eventually, Kravitch became the first female president of the Savannah Bar Association in 1975 and a Georgia Superior Court judge the next year. In 1979, she became the third woman appointed to a United States Court of Appeals.
The New York Times reports that Kravitch believed her gender eventually began to work in her favor. The juries, completely populated with Southern men, were supposedly very “protective” of her, which may have given her an upper hand in the courtroom.
Kravitch was first put on the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit by Jimmy Carter in 1979. Carter appointed many female minority judges during his presidency. She also served in the 11th Circuit, and after stepping down was replaced by another woman, Judge Frank M. Hull. Hull said about Kravitch, “She really sacrificed and gave her life to the law.” Judge Kravitch continued to serve until 2015, even though she was partially retired.
After a lifetime of achievements, on June 15th, Kravitch’s influential career came to a quiet end when she died at a hospital near her home in Atlanta. She was 96, and is survived by two sisters, Bernice Mazo and Sally Scharf.
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