Obituaries

Lenora Lapidus, ACLU advocate for women’s rights, dies at 55

An undated handout image provided by the American Civil Liberties Union shows Lenora Lapidus, a lawyer with the ACLU. Lapidus, who expanded the organization’s fight for gender equality beyond the concerns of middle-class white women to include domestic workers, women in combat and others, died on May 5, 2019, at her home in Brooklyn. She was 55. (ACLU via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY OBIT LAPIDUS BY KATHARINE Q. SEELYE FOR MAY 12, 2019. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --
ACLU via The New York Times
Lenora Lapidus, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

NEW YORK — Lenora Lapidus, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, who expanded the organization’s fight for gender equality beyond the concerns of middle-class white women to include domestic workers, women in combat, and others, died May 5 at her home in New York. She was 55.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said the cause was breast cancer.

For nearly two decades, Ms. Lapidus led the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. The project, cofounded in 1972 by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now an associate justice of the Supreme Court, became the major legal arm of the growing movement for gender equality and a powerful force in urging the courts to see women’s rights as civil rights, with the same constitutional protections.

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Ms. Lapidus started as a summer intern for the Women’s Rights Project in 1988. After law school, she served as legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey. She had been director of the rights project since 2001.

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At that time, the project was not engaged in active litigation, but that quickly changed under her leadership as she pursued a broad range of cases.

She fought sex trafficking of domestic workers and gender-based violence, which were not traditionally viewed as civil rights issues. This included challenging local ordinances that require a landlord to evict all members of a household — perpetrators as well as victims — if the police have been called repeatedly to settle domestic disputes.

“This puts victims in a terrible situation,” Ms. Lapidus said in January in an ACLU podcast about her work. “If they call the police, they risk being evicted.”

She created campaigns to inform farmworkers, food processing plant workers, and nail salon workers about their rights under antidiscrimination laws, as well as occupational health and safety laws. She led litigation against Facebook for its algorithms that enabled employers to discriminate by gender in help-wanted ads; Facebook settled the case this year, agreeing to stop such sex-based ad targeting.

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She also helped challenge the US military’s ban on women serving in combat. After an ACLU lawsuit was filed in 2012 saying the ban violated women’s right to equal protection, the ban was lifted.

“She had an expansive vision of what the struggle for women’s rights should be,” Romero said in a telephone interview. “From custodians to nail salon workers to women in combat roles, she understood that the women’s movement needed to be broader than the focus on white-collar professional women.”

For this reason, he said, he liked to say that Ms. Lapidus “renovated the house that Ruth built.”

Lenora Michelle Lapidus was born on May 17, 1963, in Manhattan and raised in Teaneck, N.J. Her father, Ivan Lapidus, was a professor of physics at Stevens Institute in Hoboken, N.J., and her mother, Leah Blumberg Lapidus, was a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia.

“Women’s rights have always been a driving force for me,” Ms. Lapidus said in the January podcast. She said she saw her mother as “a successful career-oriented woman” and yet she could not get a credit card in her own name.

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Ms. Lapidus went to Cornell, majoring in anthropology and minoring in women’s studies. She graduated in 1985. She went on to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1990.

In 1993 she married Matthew Bialer. She leaves him, their daughter, Isabel Bialer Lapidus; a brother, Kyle Lapidus; and a sister, Jesse Wind.

Becoming director of the project, Ms. Lapidus often said, had always been her goal.

“And,” she added, “I’m just thrilled that I’ve been able to actually live the life I was dreaming of living.”