:: Norma Wikler Memorial ::
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Norma Juliet Wikler -- the beauty and brilliance of her, the scholarly mind and questing spirit, the unquenchable justice-seeking flame within her, her laughter and love of family and friends -- even her name -- pulsate across our dark heavens like the northern lights that held her so in awe one late night in Minnesota. We stopped the car by the country roadside, turned out the lights, and were transported by the waves of color and energy that curtained across the blackness above us. Perhaps she felt a kinship with that vast energy for, years later, when asked by the Tico Times what one thing she would change about herself if she could, she said, with her customary candor, "I would lower the voltage of my batteries, which constantly operate at 220 volts -- 110 might be more comfortable for me and my associates."
More than for her own dear self, however, I place Norma on my shelf of historically significant persons. I place her beside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Like them, she was a true reformer. Like them she was a creative force for change in the lives of women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a little girl went into her father's law office with a pair of scissors to cut from her father's law books "all the laws that mad women cry." Norma, in the great work of her life -- the genesis and nurturing of the movement to eliminate gender bias in the courts, went to the source of the law, or at least its interpretation and of much of women's misery -- the judges themselves.
The little girl who rode her pony around the inside of the prison fence in Lexington, Kentucky on errands for the inmates became the young woman pushed unwillingly into nursing at the University of Michigan, who made a bonfire of everything and undertook her own education. She became a social scientist, an esteemed professor in academia, who in time could have retired with security and laurels, had she not undertaken the risky business of seeking gender equity for women in the courts.
Mother or midwife of the movement, Norma was there at its birth when in 1979 she took a 2-year leave of absence from the University of California to become the Founding Director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund's National Judicial Education Program to Promote Equality for Women and Men in the Courts (the NJEP). Her job was to design and launch the program which had remained on the Fund's back burner for a decade because no one could figure out how to educate the judges in state and federal courts about the pervasive gender bias, existing in all areas of the law, as a result of the judges' own gender-based stereotypes and biases unknowingly affecting their judicial decision making and fact finding. Social scientists, legal researchers and pioneering female litigators had been documenting this gender bias throughout the 1970's. By empirical studies and first hand observation, it had become clear, for example, that state courts were unwittingly contributing to the feminization of poverty "though seemingly minor day-to-day decisions in divorce cases." Judges didn't have a clue about "the economic and social realities of women and men." (Water on Stone, P. 5.)
Norma, deeply moved by the implications of the research on the lives, primarily of women, realized with all the clarity and insights she possessed as a sociologist and researcher of social change, that a movement for judicial reform was necessary. She saw her work with the NJEP, not as an opportunity to impose a feminist agenda on the independence of the judiciary but as an opportunity, in her words, "to provide facts and new sensibilities which would assist judges in doing precisely what they were doing -- administering justice -- only to do so with greater fidelity to their own ideas and with more precise knowledge." (W/S, p. 8)
In 1980 she went to the Judicial College at Reno, Nevada and presented the first Judicial Education Workshop on Gender Bias in the Courts to 200 hostile male judges from all over the country and the state supreme court justices who were their faculty. That august body booed her and threw spit balls.
Undeterred, Norma and her colleague, Lynn Hecht Shafran, began working with the fledgling National Association of Women Judges, established in 1979 when a broom closet would have held most of us. Nevertheless, we were, as Norma said, "bona fide members of the judicial community." Our experience went beyond that of the almost-exclusively upper-middle class white male judiciary and we were, indeed, ready to work with non-judges in bringing the necessary information to our colleagues. NAWJ decided to co-sponsor NJEP with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund thus enabling Norma and Lynn to develop and introduce courses on ways in which gender bias affects the courts and undermines fairness into established judicial education programs for state and federal judges.
The intrepid judicial reformers soon discovered, however, that while judges might come to understand that gender bias in the courts existed in some jurisdictions, they could never believe that it existed in their own jurisdictions unless the individual states collected concrete and specific information about the ways in which gender bias operated in that state's judicial system. Out of this understanding arose the concept of the gender bias task forces to collect this state-specific data. The genius of the task force model was that it was not only to be established by the chief justice of the highest court of a state, but that it also transformed gender bias in the courts from a "women's problem" to a problem "of the judiciary." It also indicated that "any needed reforms would be the result of self-scrutiny and improvement from within." The gender bias task forces, led by New Jersey and New York, began presenting judges with concrete and targeted steps they might take to eradicate bias. No other social institution, to date, has proposed and conducted such an internal scrutiny with intent and authority to reform.
To Norma, from a social scientist's perspective, and I would say from an historian's perspective as well, the gender bias task forces represented something genuinely new. Though she returned to her post in academia, leaving NJEP in Lynn's good hands, she continued to be actively involved in the development of the movement, especially over the next decade, giving of her talents and energy to what was essentially a second full-time job -- guiding, advising, consulting, lecturing, teaching, writing, strategizing, going to any state which asked her help in the creation and conduct of a gender bias task force and last but not least, inspiring any of us lucky enough to come within her orbit.
She helped present the first panel on gender bias in the courts to the National Conference of Chief Justices. That conference in 1988 called for the creation in every state of both gender bias task forces and task forces for minority concerns. By 1989 twenty-seven gender bias task forces existed with more in the making. To facilitate this development, she wrote, with Lynn Schafran, A Manual for Action -- Operating a Task Force on Gender Bias in the Courts, published by the Foundation for Women Judges with a gift of money raised by Minnesota women lawyers, judges, law firms and foundations in 1985 when the NAWJ met in Minneapolis. "That money," Norma said in her last letter to me, "given for the manual allowed there to be a truly national movement."
The manual was an historic document for the Minnesota Task Force on Gender Fairness in the Courts for it set us on the path and, with Norma herself, brought us thus far on our way to gender equity in the Minnesota court system. The two of us were kindred spirits from our first meeting in 1980. We became dear friends and comrades when, in 1987-89, she served as our consultant in the creation and work of our task force, of which I was chair and Judge Harriet Lansing, also here today, was vice-chair. She was always on call and came whenever we needed her. I think we never gave her much more than her expenses and the use of a little bedroom under the sloping eaves of my old farmhouse. Oh, Norma, we loved you.
Later, she developed, with Lynn, a process to be used in systematically evaluating the work of a task force which they applied first in New Jersey. She also worked with the Justice Department of Canada, making an evaluation study report of their work in educating judges about aboriginal justice and gender equality. The highpoint of the movement, though, and of Norma's role of that movement, in this country, came, I think, in 1989 at the first National Conference of Gender Bias in the Courts with Norma's signature address: Water on Stone: a perspective on the movement to eliminate gender bias in the courts. That address will stand for me as her memorial. Her voice here, with all its wisdom, speaks out: "Regardless of the scope and depth of social movements, social change will not endure unless these movements bring about lasting reforms in our core institutions." "The task forces' greatest accomplishment in a state is also its most subtle: creating a climate within a court system in which the nature and consequences of judicial gender bias are both acknowledged to exist and understood to be unacceptable in that state's courts." "We must appreciate the long-term nature of the enterprise or we will be like a comet crossing the sky." And lastly, quoting Sylvia Roberts who first brought forward the idea of judicial education on gender bias in the courts (for Norma always gave credit to the contributions of others, "we should think of ourselves as water on stone" -- that great granite stone of institutional sexism.
May we believe, with Norma, that though the stone is hard, and the water seems merely to splash around it, eventually that stone wears away and the landscape is transformed. She would say to us, "Just do it -- don't hesitate or wait for this or that -- make it happen."