Marjorie Gelb, ’70: A Career Devoted to Fighting Discrimination

Marjorie Gelb, ’70, battled against discriminatory practices throughout her legal career, beginning at the Law School when she was part of a group of students that sought to prohibit law firms that discriminated against women from recruiting at the Law School.

Having carefully studied civil rights legislation in her classes and worked a summer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she concluded that the Law School could be considered an employment agency under the terms of Title VII, and that it therefore had a duty to prohibit discriminatory firms from interviewing on campus. She and her classmates filed an administrative charge with the EEOC. The commission’s regional office agreed with Gelb’s assessment, but that finding was later overturned by the national EEOC office. In 1974, a federal court agreed that the Law School was an employment agency, but it refused to require the Law School to bar discriminatory firms.

“I had been involved in civil rights causes since high school, and I had good instincts about what things the law could and should protect,” Gelb recalled. “It never had even occurred to me that somehow a woman shouldn’t have all the employment opportunities available to men. Despite my disappointment with some of the ways that the Law School handled that issue, my overall experience there was great. It built a firm foundation under my instincts and gave me the tools to create persuasive legal arguments.”

A year after she graduated, Gelb and her husband, Mark Aaronson, ’69, headed for California, settling in Oakland. Over the next eight years, she fought against discrimination at legal services organizations that included the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County and the Employment Law Center. “As California enacted punitive welfare legislation in those years, I found myself doing a lot of work related to injustice in public assistance programs, with some satisfying outcomes,” she recalled. “That’s another debt I owe to the Law School, which permitted me to take a great course in welfare law at the School of Social Work.”

From 1980 until 1985, as general counsel and then special counsel at the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, she supervised important cases and worked diligently to disseminate knowledge and raise practice standards, speaking frequently before lawyers’ groups and interested parties, teaching classes at two Bay Area law schools, and publishing articles. “We had very strong civil rights legislation in California, stronger than Title VII in some ways, but too many people just didn’t know how our law worked,” she recalled. “Educating was a vital part of my job, and something I really liked to do.”

She served the City of Berkeley for 18 years as an assistant city attorney, as chief counsel to the city’s rent stabilization board, and as executive director of the rent stabilization board. “Berkeley was a progressive city with strong protections for tenants, and we made sure that they were enforced and that they remained strong,” she said.

After retiring from the city, she sustained a legal practice for some years, principally as a mediator. “I found real satisfaction in that mediator role, but after my third grandchild was born I found it even more satisfying to focus on the grandkids and my other interests,” she said.

Her other interests have included writing a published cookbook, The Lazy Gourmet, with one of her two daughters; mastering French (she takes classes and is in a French-speaking book club); and serving as correspondent for her Law School class. There are three grandchildren now, all living within five miles of Gelb and her husband. He has been on the faculty at UC Hastings College of the Law since 1992, created the clinical legal program there, and has a distinguished career as a civil rights and antipoverty lawyer and a prolific author.

“I was blessed with a career filled with satisfying work, for which I can thank the Law School,” she said. “I have a wonderful life with my husband, who I met at the Law School, and we have great children and spectacular grandchildren. I am so grateful for all of it.”