spacer spacer spacer
yalealumnimagazine.com   about the Yale Alumni Magazine   classified & display advertising   back issues 1992-present   our blogs   The Yale Classifieds   yam@yale.edu   support us


The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.

The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.


Comment on this article

Joan Z. Bernstein ’51JD

Last year, Joan (Jodie) Bernstein became the third recipient of the Miles W. Kirkpatrick Award for Lifetime Federal Trade Commission Achievement. She was the government’s first female general counsel, serving in the Environmental Protection Agency during the Carter administration. She now works at the Washington, D.C., law firm Bryan Cave LLP.

Y: What led you to law? That was an unusual profession for women in the 1950s.

B: I really was taken with politics and political life and I somehow thought that you had to be a lawyer to do that. My parents were immigrants, and they understood and were very, very supportive of education—both for me and my brother.

Y: Perhaps the highest-profile moment in your career was when you chaired the congressional commission that studied the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

B: I’m very proud of that. We issued a historic report. And we made recommendations for reparations, which were enacted into law.

Y: What did it entail? Did you speak to internment camp survivors?

B: We reviewed the documents that were still intact, and people who had been at the Interior Department at the time testified. But hundreds of survivors testified. That was the most difficult part. Many of them had never spoken of their being removed and what it had meant to their families. So it was highly emotional.

Y: It was also controversial, in that you put a dollar figure on the reparations, giving $20,000 and a formal apology to each survivor.

B: That was one of the things I had to manage as chairman. It was controversial enough that I felt very strongly we needed to have a unanimous commission, and we did. I spent a lot of time with individual commissioners about their views. My own conviction was that making reparations was the only way that one could make a statement to individuals. At the same time, you really could not, you cannot, compensate for a loss of liberty. There is no dollar figure. I think every commissioner struggled with that issue.

Y: Do you have an opinion on whether the compensation should be extended to African Americans or Native Americans? I understand that was part of the controversy then.

B: Although I didn’t have any expertise in that area and didn’t purport to, in terms of African Americans, I thought that there had been at least a political response—the various civil rights laws and affirmative action programs. And it was so much longer ago that it would be difficult to identify individual victims.

Y: Some of the issues you pushed at the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection were also controversial at the time. How did you get involved in that area of law?

B: It was a place where I felt a connection—especially in the '70s, when consumers in America were all women. Women were still housewives. I had been a housewife in the '50s, and there were so many frustrating things in trying to be this lesser being—a housewife and consumer—with no rights. Most of the powerful people in the commission were men, and I felt as if I were the only one who ever said, “Now wait a minute, here’s what you do when you go to the grocery store.”

Y: You helped get washing instruction labels on clothes. Why was that a big deal?

B: Before the war, there were basically four fabrics: cotton, wool, silk, and a little bit of synthetic. So people knew how to take care of garments. After the war, the whole fabric world changed. There was nylon, there were blends. People were complaining that they would wash something they thought they could wash and it would shrink. And there was no recompense. The manufacturers said, “It’s on the hang tag.” Well, I don’t know about you, but if I have a drawer full of hang tags, I don’t know which one goes with which. But, you see, it was all women complaining. The manufacturers said, “Can’t you girls keep your tags straight?”

There was a real, fundamental change required, and it wasn’t coming voluntarily. That was the kind of thing I loved doing. There were just so many things that gave us the opportunity to do something that was useful.

Y: You managed to fit in raising three kids while working as an attorney?

B: Well, I wasn’t working for part of that, like many women. I felt as if I didn’t have any alternative: once I had children, I had to stay home with them for X number of years. I didn’t really resent it at all. That’s just the way the world was.

Y: Was it hard to get back in?

B: Oh, it was terrible. It was unbelievable. You feel so alone and isolated. It was really very difficult emotionally. I didn’t think I could do it.

Y: Do you regret taking ten years out of your career?

B: I really don’t think about it, because I’m so happy with what I’ve been able to do and I’m so happy with my kids, who are good people with good values and able to take care of themselves. I do think about how I was ahead of my time in terms of doing what I really wanted to do—which was run for office and be in Congress or the state legislature.

Y: Did you ever try?

B: No. I was active in politics at a very early time. Women played helper roles in Democratic politics—I don’t know about Republicans. While I was willing to do that, and I have always been kind of active politically, it was clear to me that I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time to run for office.

Y: Is it different for women now?

B: It has changed a great deal. I hope I live to see Hillary Clinton become president.

Y: Another Yale Law School pedigree?

B: Absolutely.

Y: Has Yale influenced your work?

B: Oh, yes. I have many, many lifelong friends from Yale. Most of my sense of connection to my career is closely associated with having been at Yale. I also feel that the teaching was very much different at Yale from at other places. We all used to complain that it wasn’t practical. I remember guys saying to me, “What in the world is the use of this stuff? It’s never going to be law.”

Y: For example?

B: The Uniform Commercial Code, which is the set of standards that allows an interstate credit economy to flourish, was not law when I took that course at Yale—it was just a glimmer in the eye of our professor, who was writing it. Then, when I was in private practice in Chicago and the code became law in Illinois, I was the only one who knew anything about it.

Y: Your male colleagues were apparently comfortable with you in leadership roles during a generation when that was not common for women.

B: I think it was because they thought the girl would get the work done. And the girl did.  the end


©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. yam@yale.edu