July 28, 2015
Tulane’s Newcomb Archives has acquired documents from the career of pioneering attorney Sylvia Roberts (L ’56), shown (fourth from left) at a 1976 NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund board meeting.
Photo courtesy of Newcomb College Institute
By Aidan Smith
The records of one of the most important victories in the struggle for pay equity have found a home at Tulane University. This spring, Newcomb Archives received thousands of documents on the life and work of Sylvia Roberts (L’56), spanning her 60-year legal career.
Roberts was active in the founding of the National Organization for Women. She is best known for her successful defense of Lorena Weeks on behalf of NOW in a case against Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co., a story that recently was featured in the PBS series "Makers."
In the 1960s, Weeks worked as a telephone operator when she applied for a higher-paying position as a company switchman. She was denied on the basis that the job was only open to men, citing a Georgia state rule that women employees could not be made to lift anything heavier than 30 pounds.
Weeks noted that, in her job at the time, she was required to lift a 34-pound typewriter every day. She filed a legal appeal but lost in district court. Weeks then began writing all reports by hand in protest, rather than carry her typewriter to her desk, resulting in her suspension. She then brought her case to NOW, and Roberts represented her. She won the case on appeal in 1969, arguing that many women routinely carried children weighing more than 30 pounds. Weeks was compensated $31,000 in back pay and was given the switchman’s job. The case marked an important early legal victory for NOW in the fight against gender-based workplace discrimination.
Roberts later recalled, “The Weeks case gave momentum to NOW because it showed that we, as women, could use the system, that we could achieve this equality under the law. It wasn’t fanciful, it wasn’t pie in the sky. It could be done, and we did it.”
Roberts practiced law for almost 60 years and died in December 2014.
Her legacy of leadership has been carried on by Terry O’Neill (L ’80), who taught at Tulane Law for 12 years and has been NOW president since 2009.
The Newcomb Archives staff has worked to preserve Roberts' document collection so that it should be available to researchers in 2016.
Aidan Smith is administrative assistant professor at Tulane's Newcomb College Institute.
(Note: A version of this story first appeared in Tulane University's New Wave.)