That’s how Noreen Farrell ‘97 describes her role as executive director of national women’s rights nonprofit Equal Rights Advocates (ERA). A daughter of working class Irish parents, she says she felt a close kinship with the struggles of others at an early age. It wasn’t long until she experienced the radicalizing effects of the inequality she saw around her.
“Starting early in life, I often found myself offended by the way women and others are excluded from paths to happiness and success because of assumptions about who they are or what they can do,” she says. (Farrell notes gender stereotypes in her large family were flipped when her brother left home for college and she surprised her parents by becoming a star athlete.)
After graduating from Yale University, Farrell sought out a community of like-minded activists, people to whom social justice was paramount. She considered a move to Washington, D.C., but ultimately settled on San Francisco and enrolled at UC Hastings. She saw the city and the school as places to “push the envelope” in civil rights work.
While a law student, she connected with that progressive legal community she’d hope to find. She became the Editor-In-Chief of the Hastings Women’s Law Journal, and won a public interest law fellowship to work on campaign to preserve affirmative action in California. These experiences introduced her to an entire community of civil rights lawyers and paved the way to clerkships and jobs she loved after law school, advocating for workers and the underserved.
The path since UC Hastings has been a herald one for Farrell. Named a top leader in law by both The Daily Journal and The Recorder, Farrell is respected among her peers for her vision and the sense of urgency she brings to her work.
“Law for me is a way to be a game-changer and an innovator in the movement,” she says. “Legal precedent is not a static concept, despite its bad rap. I challenge lawyers to present new contexts that can influence the interpretation of the law to help more people. And when that fails, it is incumbent upon us to change the law.”
In her 10 years at Equal Rights Advocates, Farrell has represented women from all walks of life -- from the retail workers of Walmart challenging pay and promotion discrimination to casino workers subjected to wage theft and sexual harassment. She’s been to the U.S. Supreme Court twice, and advocated for student athletes and victims of sexual assault in the appellate courts. Some of California’s strongest laws protecting pregnant workers and working families were written and passed with Equal Rights Advocates’ support.
As a leader of the multi-organization Equal Pay Today! campaign, Farrell and a team of partners across the country are developing a comprehensive strategy to close the gender wage gap, which has sat at 77 cents on the man’s dollar for many years. Targeting specific contributors to the gender wage gap, like pay secrecy and the disproportionate number of women working at the minimum wage, the campaign seeks broad policy reform and better enforcement of fair pay laws already on the books.
“For 40 years, the people of ERA have advocated tirelessly for marginalized women workers, working families, and girls at school,” she says. “I credit UC Hastings for readying me to contribute to such an incredible cause.”
ERA’s 40th Anniversary luncheon will take place June 17 at the Hilton Union Square in San Francisco. Featuring keynote speaker Professor Anita Hill, the event will be a celebration both of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act but also of ERA’s four decades of groundbreaking work for women’s equality. UC Hastings' own Professor Joel Paul played a role in Hill's breakthrough testimony in the confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Paul corroborated, in live testimony, what Hill told him about Thomas' conduct while at the EEOC.
--May 16, 2014
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