In Memory of Louise Raggio

Married, single or divorced, you should know the name Louise Raggio. Chances are you don’t. Raggio, a pioneer in family law who died last weekend at age 91, was the driving force behind many of the legal rights you have today.

Gloria Steinem wrote of Raggio: “Hers is a story that every law school, every women’s studies course and every aspiring woman should know.” It has been said that well-behaved women do not make history. In lipstick and white gloves, Raggio was a well-behaved woman who did make history. As she has said, to have been too radical would have been career suicide.

Raggio had a saying that referred to married women in her home state of Texas prior to 1967: “As soon as they said ‘I do,’ then they ‘didn’t.’” Once married, they lost almost every right they had when they were single–from the ability to have credit to the opportunity to own a business. Raggio set to change that, and succeeded.

She wrote in her memoir:

I was an evolutionary, not a revolutionary. I worked within the system to change the system, and I did it for the entire human family. Men, though they were slow to recognize it, had as much to gain from the new equality laws as women.

A married mother of three boys, she graduated from law school in 1952 as the only woman in her class. In 1954, Judge Sarah T. Hughes persuaded prosecutor Henry Wade to hire Raggio as an assistant district attorney in charge of child support, juvenile cases and delinquent dads. Her career in family law was born.

The key to changing discriminatory laws was the creation by Congress in 1964 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Raggio and a group of women lawyers she gathered used the EEOC to sue an airline, shoe store, bank and accounting firm. More women’s names began appearing on the letterheads of law firms. As Raggio said: “It is astonishing how fast organizations can find qualified women to hire when the law requires them to do so.”

She was instrumental in passing the Marital Property Act of 1967. As former Texas Gov. Ann Richards wrote in 2003: “Louise has played a role in everything good that has happened to Texas women in the last 50 years.” In the 1970s, she led a task force that created the first comprehensive Family Code in the world. The code has been used as a pattern in many states.

In her later years, Raggio said she did not set out to be a rebel. She was a Southern woman who took a different path. That is not to say that the women’s liberation movement failed to influence her tactics. She said her feminism “came out of the closet” as the 1960s wore on.

By 2003, she was worried that the reproductive rights women had gained in her lifetime (a serious issue for her, as her grandmother gave birth to 16 children) were being eroded. Indeed, a majority of U.S. states are now governed by anti-abortion administrations, and many of those are debating legislation to restrict freedoms previously associated with sexual health and reproductive rights. Raggio’s decree to the younger generation of feminists has never been more important:

We hand you the torch we carried and for which we sacrificed. We implore you to carry the torch onward for an even better, more equitable, and fair society for the future.

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