Professor Marcus receives first Woman of SUNY Buffalo Law Award


A triumphant Isabel Marcus holds up the first ever Woman of SUNY Buffalo Law Award.

By Marcene Robinson

At twelve-years-old, Isabel Marcus knew she wanted to become a rabbi.

However, when Marcus revealed her ambitions to her school’s rabbi, she was informed the closest a girl could come to the position is rebbetzin, or the rabbi’s wife. Marcus’s father echoed the gender boundary.

“That’s the moment I became a feminist,” says Marcus, now a professor at the SUNY Buffalo Law School. “I realized by the time I finished high school that women and girls were second class citizens.”

Six decades later, Marcus stood before a crowd of lawyers and judges, and students, faculty and staff from the Law School. After a career of advocating for women’s and civil rights, Marcus was honored with the first Woman of SUNY Buffalo Law Award from the Women of SUNY Buffalo Law (WSBL), a student organization for the professional and educational advancement of female law students.

“I’ve been honored by the university and in other countries, but that this award came from the students, and that it is the first one, is very moving,” said Marcus.

WSBL was launched in fall 2014 to provide female law students with opportunities to connect with practicing women attorneys, and to create avenues to impact state and local policy-making.

“We want to honor someone who embodies our mission statement,” said Anna McCarthy, WSBL co-president. “Dr. Marcus has been very supportive of our group, has been at the law school for more than 30 years and has had an impressive career.”

The ceremony was held March 26 at the Jacobs Executive Development Center at the Butler House in Buffalo.

Among those in attendance were Erie County Family Court Judge Lisa Rodwin, attorneys from Hodgson Russ and Hurwitz & Fine, and SUNY Buffalo Law School interim dean James A. Gardner.

“She’s a real pioneer in her field,” says Gardner. “She’s been doing amazing work for a long time; important work that needs to be done that no one else is doing. She’s invented this enterprise of training women’s rights advocates in parts of the world where they don’t exist. It’s a lifetime’s work that deserves recognition.”

Marcus detailed much of her early career in her award speech, “Why feminism matters and what is to be done,” which was a collection of stories that bounced between humor and severity to explain how feminism changed her life.

She illustrated the harsh realities of growing up in a Jewish family that emigrated from Poland during WWII, her early – and somewhat unsuccessful – run for high school political office, and how she wanted to disappear when she brought a boyfriend home for the first time and her parents pounced on the opportunity to showcase her awards and photos.

Marcus also shared her struggles with the University of California, Berkeley to add courses to the political science program that focused on women, and a lawsuit she issued to the school to implement affirmative action programs.

Before ending her speech, Marcus told of a University of Texas doctoral candidate who borrowed her copy of Jürgen Habermas’s Legitimation Crisis. Upon finding “commie” ideologies inside, he shredded the book with gunfire.

Out of consideration, the student returned the destroyed book with a new copy to replace it. Marcus held on to the tattered copy – a memento from her time teaching in Texas – and was met with laughter when she displayed it to the crowd.

Each story was underlined by her battle to gain respect for herself and other women in academia, and their fight against discrimination and sexism in law.

“We need to have context and to understand history,” says Marcus, who earned a J.D., M.A. in African Studies and Ph.D. in political science from UC Berkeley. “The combination of going down South and living in Berkeley changed my life. I saw the darkest, cruelest sides of America. You couldn’t see America in the same way.”

Marcus joined UB Law School in 1982. Her research focuses on family law, domestic violence and international women’s rights. She has lectured extensively at Eastern European and Asian universities, and established an International Visiting Scholar Award for women’s rights lawyers from the regions to attend UB.

Marcus is also the founder of the UB Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender, or Gender Institute, and served as chair of the Department of Women’s Studies from 1997 to 2002.