Remembering Paula Ettelbrick
Family and friends of the late Paula Ettelbrick held a moving memorial service for her this week in New York. A number of speakers, including Urvashi Vaid and me, spoke of the importance of her life. I've gotten a couple of requests to publish what I said on this blog, so here goes:
My name is Nan Hunter, and, like many of you, I treasured Paula Ettelbrick’s friendship for 25 years.
When I first began to practice law, an older feminist lawyer advised me that if I really wanted to have an impact on people’s lives, I would practice family law. That area had – and still has – by far the greatest consequences for the daily lives of the largest number of persons of any field of law. It is also, however, notoriously tiring and often disheartening, a field in which setting significant precedents often falls victim to the particularities of each family situation.
I have not, for the most part, risen to that challenge. But Paula did, and how.
In the Mary Oliver poem “When Death Comes,” Oliver writes,
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Rest assured, Paula Ettelbrick did not simply visit this world. In a span of 25 years, she had more impact on family law and on people’s lives than most of us can imagine. Throughout her professional career, family law was the central touchstone, more than any other, which defined her life’s work.
And it is genuinely difficult to think of any modality for legal change that she left untouched: litigation, legislative drafting and advocacy, policy development, organizing, teaching, writing, public education, organizing, transnational institution building --- really, what else is there?
There are many reasons for her extraordinary legacy. She brought to her work those wonderful Paula qualities: dedication, intelligence, humor, common sense. And she fully integrated those qualities into her passion for justice. The same grace and kindness that suffused her life with those she loved were manifest in her work life as professionalism and magnanimity. Paula did not see justice as a cliché or a government agency. “The fight for justice,” she said is about “the realignment of power imbalances among individuals and classes of people [throughout] society.” I can’t think of a better definition.
The same courage that carried her through literally to the end made Paula a true visionary in her work. She became profoundly engaged, intellectually and politically, with both the law and the social norms that regulate family life. And she had the courage to speak her mind.
What was guiding her? She told a journalist that “It was feminism, it was progressive politics, it was about going after the central problems.” Or, as she famously wrote, “I do not want to be known as Mrs. Attached to Somebody Else.”
Paula was ferocious in her belief that law should not be used merely to improvise temporary fixes, but that it had the potential, even if rarely realized, to liberate. “Liberate” is a word seldom used now, but it is a powerful one, and thus it is not surprising that Paula deployed it in her most famous single work, the widely lionized, sharply criticized and – perhaps most dramatically – extravagantly anthologized essay, “Since When is Marriage a Path to Liberation?” If you google that title, how many hits do you think there are? I can tell you: 3.7 million. As I said, Paula did not simply visit this world.
What fewer people know about that famous essay, paired with one making the opposite argument by Tom Stoddard, whose own life was also tragically cut short, his by AIDS, was that it coincided with a road show. Paula and Tom visited cities across the country making their arguments and inviting reaction – of which they got a lot. I remember admiring them tremendously for this, thinking that they had demonstrated a model for how issues should be aired within a movement. And I remember Paula telling me how hungry those audiences were for the chance to have a meaningful debate among friends and allies. Today, of course, that open debate would never be permitted because it would be off message. Paula was not a message minding kind of gal.
To close, let me return to the same poem I quoted earlier. In it, Oliver writes of
Each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular
If each of us is indeed a flower in that sense, none of us has reached higher, grown taller, traveled farther, loved and been loved more, or seen further down the road than Paula.