New York, July 31, 2009 – Nancy F. Wechsler, who graduated at the top of the Columbia Law School Class of 1940 at a time when few women were admitted, died July 27. She was 93.
Wechsler, a noted champion of civil liberties, was also a prominent copyright and intellectual property lawyer for seven decades.
Wechsler began her studies at the Law School in 1937, just 10 years after women were first admitted. She earned a James Kent Scholarship, awarded in recognition of outstanding academic achievement. She also won the John Ordronaux Prize, awarded annually for overall excellence and usually recognizes the student achieving the highest academic average in each graduating class.
However, Wechsler soon found her accomplishments did not matter when she tried to get a job, as she recalled years later in an interview.
“At one firm, the receptionist told me they’d hired female stenographers only two years ago, and they were not about to hire women lawyers,” she said. “At another firm, one of the partners who knew my father emerged from his office to tell me, very politely, but words leaving no doubt, that women had no place in this firm.”
But Wechsler, also one of the first women admitted to the New York state bar, did find work, and spent six years working in several federal agencies. Those positions culminated in her role as counsel to President Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. It was an area of law that had long been familiar. Her father, Osmond Fraenkel, served for many years as counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. Father and daughter would later serve together on the board of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
In 1948, Wechsler joined Greenbaum, Wolf & Ernst, and began a storied career as a copyright and intellectual property lawyer. She garnered even more attention because of the firm’s representation of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, at a time when contraception and abortion were essentially outlawed.
“We were really the specialists in the law of birth control,” Wechsler recalled in an oral history of the Law School’s early women graduates.
Wechsler co-wrote an influential amicus brief for the watershed case of Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Supreme Court, for the first time, recognized a right to privacy in striking down a law that banned the prescription or sale of contraception. She was also an author of a prime amicus brief for Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark abortion decision.
But the bulk of her career was spent representing publishers, authors, agents, and literary estate, while also taking on cases involving libel, obscenity, right of publicity, and other First Amendment issues.
“It was a big deal to review a book for libel,” she recalled. “You sat with the author and worked through the whole book. I did a lot of that.”
Among her clients was Robert F. Kennedy, with whom she recalled having “all kinds of arguments” about his first book The Enemy Within.
Like her father, who died at age 94 while walking to work, Wechsler was in her office at the law firm of McLaughlin & Stern until just days before she died when she suffered a stroke. David Blasband, a partner at the firm, said “Nancy was one of the finest, most ethical and brightest individuals I have had the pleasure and honor of knowing. Her dedication to her clients could be the subject of a law school textbook on a lawyer's responsibilities.”
Wechsler was the sister-in-law of Herbert Wechsler, a Law School professor who left a legacy when he died in 2000 as one of the nation’s most-influential and revered constitutional scholars. Her husband, James, who died in 1983, was the longtime editor of the New York Post. A son, Michael, died in 1969.
Wechsler is survived by a daughter and three grandchildren.
Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, stands at the forefront of legal education and of the law in a global society. Columbia Law School joins its traditional strengths in international and comparative law, constitutional law, administrative law, business law and human rights law with pioneering work in the areas of intellectual property, digital technology, sexuality and gender, criminal, and environmental law.