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Fair Labor Lawyer

The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin

Southern Biography

280 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 20 halftones

ebook available

Biography | Southern History | Legal History & Studies

  Hardcover / 9780807162088 / March 2016

Through a life that spanned every decade of the twentieth century, Supreme Court advocate Bessie Margolin shaped modern American labor policy while creating a place for female lawyers in the nation’s highest courts. Despite her beginnings in an orphanage and her rare position as a southern, Jewish woman pursuing a legal profession, Margolin became an influential Supreme Court advocate. In this comprehensive biography, Marlene Trestman reveals the forces that propelled and the obstacles that impeded Margolin’s remarkable journey, illuminating the life of this trailblazing woman.

Raised in the Jewish Orphans’ Home in New Orleans, Margolin received an extraordinary education at the Isidore Newman Manual Training School. Both institutions stressed that good citizenship, hard work, and respect for authority could help people achieve economic security and improve their social status. Adopting these values, Margolin used her intellect and ambition, along with her femininity and considerable southern charm, to win the respect of her classmates, colleagues, bosses, and judges—almost all of whom were men and were among the most brilliant legal professionals in America.

A graduate of Tulane and Yale Law Schools, Margolin launched her career in the early 1930s, when only 2 percent of America’s attorneys were female, and far fewer were Jewish and from the South. According to Trestman, Margolin worked hard to be treated as “one of the boys.” For the sake of her career, she eschewed marriage—but not romance—and valued collegial relationships, often engaging in late-night brief-writing sessions or the occasional poker game.

But her personal relationships never eclipsed her numerous professional accomplishments, among them defending the constitutionality of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, drafting rules establishing the American military tribunals for Nazi war crimes in Nuremberg, and, on behalf of the Labor Department, shepherding through the courts the child labor, minimum wage, and overtime protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. A founding member of the National Organization for Women, Margolin culminated her government service as a champion of the Equal Pay Act, arguing and winning the first appeals. Margolin’s passion for her work and focus on meticulous preparation resulted in an outstanding record in appellate advocacy, both in number of cases and rate of success. By prevailing in 21 of her 24 Supreme Court arguments, Margolin shares the elite company of only a few dozen people who attained such high standing as Supreme Court advocates.

1. Childhood, 1909–1925
2. College and Law School, 1925–1933
3. Summer with a Suffragist, 1933
4. Defending the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, 1933–1939
5. Bachelor Girl
6. Wages and Hours, 1939–1946
7. An Interesting Adventure in Nuremberg, May–December 1946
8. Return to the Labor Department, 1947–1961
9. Equal Opportunities, Personal and Public, 1961–1972
10. Retirement and Last Years, 1972–1996
Appendix 1. Bessie Margolin’s Arguments at the Supreme Court
Appendix 2. Program and Abbreviated Guest List for Bessie Margolin’s Retirement Dinner

Marlene Trestman is former special assistant to the Maryland attorney general and former law instructor at Loyola University of Maryland's Sellinger School of Business & Management. A New Orleans native, Trestman had a personal relationship with Margolin that grew from common childhood experiences.

Praise for Fair Labor Lawyer

“Trestman's story of Margolin reveals an amazing woman who not only overcame barriers, nut used them as positive stepping stones…Trestman's prose is clear and often elegant. The extensive notes and bibliography reveal the impressive breadth of her research.”—The American Historical Review

“Trestman's book, like Margolin's career, is truly remarkable. ”—American Jewish Archives Journal

“An important contribution to the history of Jews, gender and labor, Marlene Trestman's book reminds us of how unexplored the history of Jewish women in the legal profession remains—and how much exciting research lies ahead of us.”—American Jewish History

“Despite her achievements, Margolin has been largely forgotten. But Ms. Trestman's biography introduces her to a new and wide audience. Ms. Trestman has produced an account of Margolin's professional and personal life that is prodigiously researched, well-crafted and highly readable. It fulfills Ms. Trestman's determination ‘to see Bessie Margolin written back into history.’”—Baltimore Sun

“Margolin’s accomplishments are a towering example regardless of the circumstances of her birth, but as a Southern woman raised in New Orleans’ Jewish Orphans’ Home, they’re all the more remarkable.”—­New Orleans Advocate

“Given the paucity of information, Trestman did yeoman work filling in the gaps of her professional life, and even a good part of her private one as well. . . . We should be grateful for what Trestman has achieved. It is an absorbing story told well.”—Southern Jewish History

“When Bessie Margolin died in 1996, Marlene Trestman conceived of writing the story of her mentor’s remarkable life to shine some well-deserved light on Margolin’s prodigious career. We can rejoice that the concept has come to fruition in the new book Fair Labor Lawyer, the first Bessie Margolin biography. It is an inspiring, instructive and compelling story. As one would expect from a top-flight lawyer, this consequential story is meticulously researched, well documented and skillfully told.”—Tennessee Bar Journal

“Trestman’s book is a fascinating look at the life of Bessie Margolin, with unexpected glimpses of the more humorous experiences she faced as a working woman at the time. There is much we take for granted today, and a careful reading of history can show us all it has taken for women to be respected as intelligent and ambitious beings in their own right.”—Ms. JD

“A fascinating and readable biography of Bessie Margolin, the most accomplished lawyer I never heard of. . . . The author has done us a service by telling us effectively about this orphan-pioneer who became a respected lawyer against all odds.”—The Philadelphia Lawyer

“In this very special story of an orphan child who became one of the best-known women lawyers in the United States, Trestman brings a remarkable life back to us. Bessie Margolin walks through these pages as a whole person, her romantic liaisons, her devoted mentoring, and her brilliant legal initiatives all fully rendered. Fair Labor Lawyer is an inspiring read.”—Alice Kessler-Harris, author of A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

“In this outstanding biography, the life and times of Bessie Margolin, neglected public servant and twentieth-century legal pioneer, come alive. Marlene Trestman has researched deeply into the personal and public life of an influential twentieth-century lawyer. The result is a convincing study that covers material from Margolin’s early life in a Jewish orphanage in New Orleans to her years in the Labor Department as an advocate for women’s equality in the workplace. Fair Labor Lawyer is a welcome addition to our understanding of women’s history and New Deal policy-making.”—Jean Baker, author of Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion

“Among the hundreds of biographies and memoirs of important American attorneys, very few describe the careers of women. Bessie Margolin, who defended and enforced some of the New Deal’s central statutes, arguing repeatedly in the Supreme Court, is one of these forgotten feminist heroes now regained.”—Barbara Babcock, author of Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz

“In Fair Labor Lawyer, Marlene Trestman tells the fascinating and improbable story of Bessie Margolin. Raised in a Jewish orphanage in New Orleans, she became a powerful Washington lawyer during the New Deal and spent her life repairing the world. It’s a page-turner!”—Laura Kalman, author of Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974–1980

Fair Labor Lawyer is an engaging and insightful narrative of the extraordinary life of Bessie Margolin—the self-styled reluctant feminist who became the architect of the U.S. Labor Department's Equal Pay Act enforcement and a founder of the National Organization for Women. Thanks to Marlene Trestman's vivid retelling of the relationships and circumstances that shaped Bessie's life, readers will come away feeling they knew her well, cheering her successes and mourning her losses right along with her. This book is a welcome addition to the body of knowledge we have (which is still far too small) about all of the women who created the successes and advances of the second wave of the U.S. women's movement.”—Terry O’Neill, president, National Organization for Women

“Bessie Margolin is the greatest legal pioneer you have never heard of. Raised in a Jewish orphanage in New Orleans, she attended Tulane and Yale. At a time when few women could pursue a career in the legal field, Margolin was part and parcel of the New Deal and won over 90% of the cases she argued before the Supreme Court and played a role in the Nuremberg Trials as well. Marlene Trestman captures Margolin's astonishing life in this wonderful book.”—Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist and author

“Trestman's well researched, meticulously documented, and engagingly written book should have wide appeal—to students of the New Deal era, the landmark Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the Department of Labor, as well as early twentieth-century Jewish life and culture in Memphis and New Orleans. ”—The Judicial Bookshelf

Extras for Fair Labor Lawyer


Marlene Trestman on PBS's "To the Contrary."

Gaithersburg Book Festival's "Trailblazing Women" panel with Marlene Trestman and John Norris.

Marlene Trestman at the Roosevelt Reading Festival.


Marlene Trestman and Charlotte Margolin discuss Bessie Margolin at WABE's "Closer Look."

Mark Klobas of the New Books Network interviews Marlene Trestman.

Susan Larson of WWNO's "The Reading Life" discuss Bessie Margolin with Marlene Trestman.

Marlene Trestman on Maryland Morning, 88.1 FM WYPR, with Tom Hall

The Mike Slater Radio Show interviews Marlene Trestman about Margolin's life and work

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