Alumnae Profiles

Court Watcher

Clare Cushman ’80
Supreme Court Decisions and Women’s Rights, one of six publications by Clare Cushman ’80, was inspired by conversations with former Spence librarian Connie Corson. “Spence girls are always looking for something about the law and women’s rights,” Cushman recalls Corson saying. “But there’s no good reference book. There are only legal tomes or general books on the women’s movement.”

At the time, Cushman had just accepted a full-time position at the Supreme Court Historical Society, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by Justice Warren Burger to educate general audiences such as Corson’s young researchers. As director of publications, Cushman was tasked with writing a new publication every few years on a topic of her choice. Her conversation with Corson came at a perfect moment: when “it was a good time to take stock of what had happened in the ’70s and ’80s,” during which gender bias laws were being established in every state.

Cushman was surprised to discover that in many of the cases that had shaped women’s rights, the plaintiffs were men. Working with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as her “shadow editor,” Cushman learned firsthand how the men had been selected strategically to challenge stereotypes. One example is the man whose wife had died in childbirth. He wanted to stay home to raise his son, but found that laws applied
to widows but not widowers. Cushman interviewed many such plaintiffs to write Supreme Court Decisions and Women’s Rights, explaining that “the most compelling way to get students hooked is to start with the narrative history of how the plaintiff experienced the injustice,” and from there to examine the resulting case and the law.

Cushman started her job at the Supreme Court Historical Society without a legal background. She had written for
National Geographic for five years, and received a graduate degree in linguistics at the Paris-Sorbonne University, Paris IV. However, her training as a writer allowed her to make complex issues accessible to readers. And Cushman has always had a passion for history — it was her major at Middlebury and her favorite subject at Spence. She recalls that Spence history teacher Pat Swinney-Kaufman was “a huge inspiration.”

Cushman has worked at the Supreme Court Historical Society for 25 years. Her most recent publication, Courtwatchers: Eyewitness Accounts in Supreme Court History, presents eyewitness accounts of Supreme Court history, from oral records to diaries and sound documents. She is working on a documentary based on a section of the book, examining a practice called circuit riding, which started in 1790 and required Supreme Court justices to serve on regional circuit courts. Justices hated the practice because it involved unpleasant travel such as dangerous roads and sharing hotel rooms with strangers, and it was eventually abolished in 1870. “The point is to show that the Supreme Court didn’t always have the power that we think of it as having,” Cushman explains.

Courtwatchers won a Gavel Award, one of several legal writing awards that Cushman has received. Her work has also been reviewed in The New York Times, and she admits, “I get lots of fan mail.” Cushman notes that when she began working at the Supreme Court Historical Society no one else was writing about the court for a general audience, but today there is much more “competition.” She adds approvingly, “The Supreme Court is a hot topic.”