Strossen, Nadine (1950—)

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Strossen, Nadine (1950—)

First woman president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), law professor, and writer. Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on August 18, 1950; daughter of Woodrow John Strossen and Sylvia (Simicich) Strossen; graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard-Radcliffe College, 1972; graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, 1975; married Eli Michael Noam (a professor), in 1980.

Selected writings:

Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights (1995); (contributor) Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties (1996).

Nadine Strossen, the only child of Woodrow and Sylvia Strossen , was born in 1950 in Jersey City, New Jersey, and grew up in Hopkins, Minnesota. She learned to value freedom of expression and to risk ostracism from the examples of relatives on both sides of her family. Her maternal grandfather endured public ridicule as a pacifist in Italy during World War I, and her German father's anti-Hitler activities landed him in the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II. Although she considered the law an exciting profession and was a top debater in high school, Strossen did not think it possible for a woman to have a career in that field. However, she possessed an early sense of her own inalienable rights and was quick to defend them. And when she was given the honor of addressing the audience at her high school graduation, she abandoned the usual commencement remarks for an opportunity to speak out against the Vietnam War.

An accomplished student, Strossen graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard-Radcliffe College in 1972. She was active in feminist and debating groups, which fostered her desire to become a lawyer. Upon entering Harvard Law School, Strossen assumed the much-coveted editorship of the Law Review. Graduating magna cum laude in 1975, she returned to Minnesota to become a law clerk in the Supreme Court there. Her work in general law and commercial litigation led in 1984 to a position at the New York University School of Law, where she eventually became associate professor of clinical law and supervising attorney of the Civil Rights Clinic. By 1988, she was a full professor of law at New York University Law School.

Even before her move to New York, Strossen had become involved with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as a member of the board of directors in 1983 and as national general counsel three years later. In 1991, she rose to the presidency, becoming the first woman and the youngest individual so elected. In her tenure as president, she has spoken to more than 200 groups each year and has visited more than 500 colleges worldwide. Concerned with the image of the ACLU as a radically leftist political group, Strossen has sought to change it, focusing upon the absolute commitment of the United States and the ACLU to the Bill of Rights and issues of free speech. According to Current Biography, although Strossen's convictions about the importance of free speech as "the bedrock of organizing and advocacy and activism on behalf of any other right" made her the ideal candidate for the high-profile job, it also made her the prime target of vocal opponents of ACLU activities. "You'd be surprised how many audiences are openly hostile to me," she once remarked in a magazine interview soon after accepting the post. "They think I'm the devil incarnate."

A professed feminist, Strossen endured heavy criticism from other prominent feminists, among them Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon , for her opposition to the censorship of pornography. She rejected their labeling her an "apologist" for pornographers in her book Defending Pornography, which The New York Times Book Review named a Notable Book of 1995. In it, she argued that while the prosecution of violence against women is vital, the prosecution of pornography depicting violence against women is unconstitutional and dangerous to the right to free speech. Finding the claims linking pornography to violence against women unsubstantiated, Strossen suggests that even if a link could be identified, the risk of censorship would outweigh the evils attributed to pornography. In Strossen's opinion, the attempt to censor pornography might result in expanding the definition of what constitutes pornography to include less objectionable material. She bolsters her argument by citing examples in Canada, where anti-pornography legislation has been passed, in which nonviolent material with lesbian or feminist themes has been banned. Believing that her adversaries are looking for an easy solution to a complex social problem, she adds: "To solve a social problem, we need more speech." Strossen used a similar argument against making hate speech a crime in her contribution to the 1996 book Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.

Strossen and the ACLU have continued their fight against censorship as it applies to the issue of the wide availability of information on the Internet. They have particularly argued against government regulatory proposals, the most prominent of which was the Communications Decency Act in 1996. The act was intended to limit minors' access to "indecent" or "patently offensive" material on the Internet by making the distribution of such illegal. The ACLU brought the case before a panel of federal judges, who agreed that it violated First Amendment rights, and the government's appeal became the Supreme Court case Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union. In a unanimous decision, the justices determined the act to be unconstitutional.

In 1986, the U.S. Jaycees honored Strossen with its "Ten Outstanding Young Americans" award, and she became the first American woman to win the Jaycees International's "Outstanding Young Persons of the World" award. The recipient of several honorary doctorates, Strossen was named to the National Law Journal's list of "100 most influential lawyers in America" in 1991 and 1994. She also earned the Media Institute's Freedom of Speech Award in 1994 and the "Women of Distinction" award from the Women's League for Conservative Judaism. The accolades continued when Vanity Fair magazine named her as one of "America's 200 Most Influential Women" in 1998 and Ladies' Home Journal included her in "The 100 Most Important Women in America" in 1999.


Current Biography Yearbook, 1997. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1997.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

B. Kimberly Taylor , freelance writer, New York, New York