A trailblazer in women’s rights, a formidable labor and anti-discrimination lawyer, and longtime general counsel of the Forward Association, Judith P. Vladeck died Monday at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York after a long struggle with cancer. She was 83.
Vladeck was the daughter-in-law of B. Charney Vladeck, who was the Forward’s general manager from 1918 to 1938 and a leader in New York’s progressive political scene in the early part of the 20th century.
Judith Vladeck graduated from Columbia University School of Law in 1947, at a time, she was fond of saying, when the school’s placement office didn’t even send women on job interviews. “She was a pioneer,” her son David told the Forward. “She went to law school when women didn’t go to law school. She both pursued a career and raised her children at a time when most women made a choice between the two.”
Vladeck’s first big legal victory came in 1978, when she represented an engineer at Western Electric — the first female professional hired by the company — in a lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination. They won what ultimately became a class-action suit involving thousands of women, and in the process they “ended up redefining women’s rights in the high-tech industry and across the economy,” said the Forward’s publisher, Samuel Norich. Over the years, Vladeck also represented a professor at the City University of New York, winning a multimillion-dollar settlement when she proved that the university had been discriminating against women for 15 years in regard to salaries. She represented a lawyer at a prominent Philadelphia law firm who alleged that she was passed over for a promotion to partner in favor of less-qualified men. Vladeck ultimately lost this case on appeal, but once noted in a Columbia University alumni publication that even after the reversal by the appeals court, it was, in its own way, “a smashing, wonderful, great victory,” because it “gave religion to a lot of law firms around the country.” In what her son described as “one of the crowning moments of her career,” Vladeck represented the not-for-profit organization Nontraditional Employment for Women in a case against the contractors building what was to become the New York City neighborhood known as Battery Park City. As part of the out-of-court settlement, an apprenticeship program was created to help women train in construction. With the money that NEW was awarded, the organization also built the headquarters it had long lacked in a converted firehouse in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. It was dedicated in 1989 as the Judith Vladeck Center for Women.
After graduating from law school, Vladeck worked for 10 years at Conrad & Smith — “the only law firm that would hire me,” she told a New York Times reporter in 1994 — before joining the law firm that her husband, Steven Vladeck, had founded nine years prior. She would refer to the firm — Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard — as “the last socialist law firm in America,” her nephew Charney Bromberg told the Forward. Stephen Vladeck died in 1979; the couple’s daughter, Anne, joined the firm in 1982 and is now its senior partner. “There’s either something in the gene pool or something in the water,” joked their son David who noted that each of the couple’s three children has “pursued a career consistent with the overriding ethics of our family.” David was, for many years, director of the litigation group at the public interest firm Public Citizen, and he is now an associate professor of law at Georgetown University. Bruce Vladeck served as administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration (now known as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, under President Bill Clinton; he is now interim president of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
Vladeck is survived by her three children and five grandchildren. There will be no funeral — “She didn’t like funerals,” David said — but a memorial service is being planned. In lieu of flowers, send donations to the Wagner Archives at the New York University Library, or to Nontraditional Employment for Women.