June 3, 2002
It is my incredibly sad task to tell you that on May 27th Norma Wikler took
her own life at her home in Costa Rica. Norma struggled with depression for
many years and, in the words of her sisters, this was not a question of "if"
Norma was the founding director of the National Judicial Education Program (NJEP)
from l979-l981, which is when we first began to work together. She persuaded
me to succeed her at NJEP when her two-year leave as Professor of Sociology
at the University of California-Santa Cruz was over, and we continued to work
closely together for twenty years on projects related to the task forces on
gender bias in the courts which emerged in response to the judicial education
programs Norma designed and presented for NJEP in l980-81.
I have always thought of my twenty-year collaboration with Norma as a special
gift in my life. Every project we did together was a joy for me. To be able
to work with a colleague for two decades in a virtual "mind meld"
and maintain a wonderful friendship throughout is rare, and I treasured my good
Norma was a font of brilliant ideas and equally brilliant at carrying out the
many projects she conceived. Although the idea for what became NJEP was originally
articulated by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund Board at its own founding
in l970, it was not until 1979 that the Fund found Norma and she made the dream
a reality. As a sociologist Norma constantly brought the broad view and the
long view to our work on gender bias in the courts. Although the task forces
were a serendipitous response to NJEP's education programs, once these task
forces began to spring up Norma was determined that they should see themselves
as part of a national court reform movement and maintain the communication with
one another necessary to that understanding of their work. The First National
Conference on Gender Bias in the Courts, held at the National Center for State
Courts in l989, was her idea, and her thoughts on our movement are best understood
by reading her keynote address to that conference, "Water on Stone: A Perspective
on the Movement to Eliminate Gender Bias in the Courts," 26 Court Review
6 (Fall l989).
Norma's interests and her impact ranged far beyond gender bias in the courts.
Among the many steps Norma took to create NJEP was to invite the then-new National
Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) to become NJEP's co-sponsor. From her relationship
with NAWJ emerged yet another project that continues to this day: NAWJ's education
programs on bioethics. Norma had been working with her brother, a professor
of bioethics, on a series of papers on current issues in the field. She knew
it would be increasingly important for judges to learn about these issues and
suggested that NAWJ undertake this training, which today includes a focus on
the human genome project and its particular implications for women and people
Norma was intensely interested and active in labor reform, organic agriculture,
ecology, politics, community organizing and more. For the last nine years she
lived in Costa Rica, growing organic pineapples and organizing numerous projects
to better the lives of her workers and the adults and children in her community
there. Some sense of what she meant to them is apparent from the fact that after
her death, 130 people from this small community poured into her home to say
Norma was cremated in Costa Rica and her sisters took her ashes to Lexington,
Kentucky where she was raised for burial today. When her family decides on a
future memorial I will let you know.
Although I cannot imagine carrying on the work that we did together without
Norma, I also know that we can best remember and honor her by recommitting ourselves
to that work, which she so brilliantly initiated. In the last publication Norma
and I wrote together, "Gender Bias in the Courts: Action in the New Millennium,"
we focused on the natural waxing and waning of social movements, the difficulty
of keeping our movement alive and fresh after twenty years, and the necessity
of nonetheless doing so. It seems fitting to end this message to you with some
of the closing lines from that book.
Despite ... the uneven institutional support for our issues, this is definitely
not the time to stop our work. We know that despite all the gains, serious forms
of gender bias continue to deprive women of their legal rights. If we who have
been on the front lines abandon the movement, how can that reality ever change?
Please pass this message on to whomever you think would want to know about Norma's
Lynn Hecht Schafran
National Judicial Education Program