The Daily Princetonian spoke with Fatima Goss Graves, the President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. She co-founded the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund and serves as an adviser on the American Law Institute Project on Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct on Campus. She previously served as the Senior Vice President for Program and Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women’s Law Center. She visited the Wilson School on Oct. 7–8 through the Leadership through Mentorship program. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of the conversation.
What made you decide to devote your career to advancing women’s rights?
I grew up in a social-justice family. I learned about the power of the law as a source for change really through the stories of my family. My father and his siblings were the lead plaintiffs in a case to desegregate Knoxville, Tennessee, public schools. For me, I always really understood that my work could be social- justice work, and that I could use the law. I am not sure that I knew across the course of my life that I would absolutely devote my career to gender-justice questions. But when I look back on my passions and where I showed up, I always was showing up and interested in improving the lives of women and girls and especially for brown and black women. It has been fun being here at Princeton because I’ve been hearing about everyone’s senior thesis and [junior] papers and it reminded me that my own senior thesis was focused on black women and women’s clubs and the work around equality and how they fit in at that time. It reminded me that my interest apparently goes way, way back.
What has been the impact of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund and why is it so important?
It has been the honor of a lifetime to house and run the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund. We launched it on January 1st, 2018, and since that time we’ve heard from almost 4,000 people who’ve been seeking support for harassment and related retaliation. They’re coming from over 60 different sectors. Harassment is an everywhere problem and we’re hearing from people everywhere. About two-thirds of the people we hear from are low income. It has been amazing to be able to connect people, especially those in the lowest paid jobs, with lawyers who are ready to fight on their behalf, with media professionals who are ready to tell their stories and support them along the way. We have almost 900 attorneys who have signed up to be intensive legal defense managers.
How has the role of the National Women’s Law Center changed under the current government administration?
There’s no question that we have had to gear up and defend our core rights, and that has meant that we have had to sue this administration over the changes that they made to the equal pay rule, over the contraception rule they put out, over the religious refusals rule they put out, over their interim Title IV rule, over their refusal to be transparent around the steps that they are taking that are undermining our lives. Those are significant resources we’re having to put on the table to really deal with the things that they are doing, resources that are frankly interrupting our proactive and longstanding agenda.
What would you say your proudest moment from your time at the National Women’s Law Center has been and why does it mean so much to you?
You know, I’ve had so many exciting moments, but I was reflecting over the last couple of days and one of my proudest moments was when we passed the healthcare rights law as a part of the Affordable Care Act. It was the first ban on sex discrimination in healthcare. It was remarkable to actually think there wasn’t that provision in law before the Affordable Care Act, and now people know that they have protections when seeking the care that they need, it’s that fundamental to their ability to live with dignity. At the same time, we also know that these … sorts of gains are so fragile, and unfortunately, this administration has put out a rule to gut that provision in the law, and we will fight it with all our might. I was proud of my own work, proud of the National Women’s Law Center, and frankly proud of Congress for taking on this historic fight. Sometimes you have to lean in to those really good memories.
What are some projects that excite you right now?
One of the things that’s really exciting right now is the work that we are doing, really across the organization, that merges our law and policy work with our culture work. It’s exciting to see the work even in the weeds be translated to cultural spaces. It’s exciting to think about how to support our partners, the young girls we work with who are trying to transform their schools, the worker-justice organizations who are disrupting the idea that only some workers get to work with safety and dignity, the childcare advocates who are finally putting out a vision of what it would look like for everyone who wants or needs childcare to be able to access it and for it to be high-quality and affordable. In some ways, what’s most exciting is that even in some of the darkest times, people are articulating beautiful visions for the future that will really make a difference.
That relates to my next question, which is what does your ultimate vision of gender justice look like, and how can we get there?
When I think about where we are heading down the road, and I don’t know of the time period that it’ll take us to get there, I’m clear that we are seeking a world where women and girls can work and learn and live with safety and dignity and equity and bodily autonomy, and we will know that we have gotten there when our laws and our institutions and really our culture reflects those values.
How can college students like myself support and advocate for gender justice?
Young people, I really think, and those who are in college, are some of our biggest champions. They are willing to show up in support of new laws and work with us to defend, they work on our digital and social campaigns, they show up to town halls, they’re pressing their own institutions to do better. One of the things that I tell people is that we have lots of tools on our website. If you go to nwlc.org, you will find them, and they are ready for the taking for activists who want to make a change in their lives. Sometimes that’s small work, sometimes that’s with a small circle of friends and that is good enough, and sometimes it’s taking on a bigger institution together, and as long as we are all plodding ahead in the same direction, we’ll get there.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’ve been really excited to see the energy and activism on Princeton’s campus. I’ve been hearing about it for the last two days, students who have been organizing for the change they want to see here locally, in addition to the changes they want to see in the world. It’s inspiring to see. I am hopeful that you guys won’t let up.