AMPLIFY: Justine Wise Polier
I live in Pittsburgh. My home is 4.9 miles from the Tree of Life Synagogue. I don’t think I’ll ever have the words to describe how Pittsburgh felt on October 27, 2018.
That Saturday, I sat on my couch, stunned, wondering what I could do. There are the obvious things: donate, show up, show love, vote, etc. I get a great sense of purpose from writing this column and sharing the stories of historic women, so I started looking for a story to share. I ended up on the Jewish Women’s Archive website, and quickly came across their Women of Valor collection. It was here that I started reading about sixteen brilliant Jewish women, described as women “whom had the courage and conviction to overcome the social, cultural, and religious barriers she faced in creating a more just and equitable world” (5). Justine Wise Polier is one of these 16 women. She was the first woman justice in New York. After her death, the New York Times referred to her as “a leader and recognized authority in the field of juvenile justice and children's rights” (2). The Women of Valor collection has so much information that I will only be able to scratch the surface of Wise Polier’s achievements, so I implore every reader to please visit the Jewish Women’s Archive and learn about all of the women featured. It’s the least we can do.
Justine Wise Polier was born on April 12, 1903 to Rabbi Stephen Wise and Louise Waterman Wise (1), in Portland, Oregon (4). Two years after her birth, the family moved to New York (1). Wise Polier’s father was a prominent Rabbi; he established the Free Synagogue so he could speak freely while at the pulpit. He was involved with the NAACP from the very beginning, founded the American Jewish Congress, was an advocate of an Israeli-state, and a pro-labor activist (1). Wise Polier’s mother was equally active in her community and firm in her faith. Louise Waterman Wise founded a Jewish foster care and adoption agency, which was later named Louise Wise Services. The agency also provided services and assistance to single mothers (1). Wise Polier recalls a great childhood; both of her parents were supportive and never made their children feel unimportant or unheard (1). By all accounts, her childhood was emotionally fulfilling.
She went to Yale Law, not because she wanted to be a lawyer, but because she wanted to learn what rights factory workers had, as she had worked in factories throughout her college career. In fact, right after she graduated from Barnard College, Wise Polier started work with a woolen mill in Passaic, New Jersey but was fired for “agitating” workers that were not allowed to organize (2). Rabbi Wise’s (Wise Polier’s father) pro-labor stance was so well-known, that Wise Polier had to use her maiden name, Waterman, to work in the mills but she was eventually found out by anti-union spies (1). The year before Wise Polier went to Yale, she studied labor relations in Geneva, but her father encouraged her to get a law degree. Rabbi Wise reportedly told his daughter that she had “good intentions but no skills” (2), which is probably the nicest way anyone could tell you to get your shit together.
By the end of her second year of law school, the great textile strike had broken out in Passaic, so Wise Polier commuted between Passaic, NJ and Yale. The press began to refer to her as a Joan of Arc, because of the intensity of her speeches and her vitriol towards mill owners. The strike began in 1926, and ended in December of 1927 when the textile workers were finally allowed the right to unionize (1).
While at Yale, Wise Polier met Lee Tulin, a professor at the school. They married in 1926 and had one son, named Stephen. Tulin died in 1932 from leukemia, after only six years of marriage. Wise Polier recalls that these were very trying times (1). It is about two years after her first husband’s death that Wise Polier’s career takes off and by 1935 she was appointed to the Justice of Domestic Relations Court (now referred to as Family Court), making her the first woman judge in the state of New York (2). She would hold this title for the next 38 years and retired in 1973 (2).
It was while on the court that Wise Polier made a name for herself. She strongly believed that the court was a way to help children in the juvenile justice system and felt it was her duty to rehabilitate instead of punish (4). To her, the court was an extension of social services and should not be perceived as just part of criminal proceedings (4). While on the court, one of Wise Polier’s findings was that many institutions would not allow black youths that were considered delinquent into their facilities. Because of this, she founded the Wiltwyck School for Boys in 1942- the first interracial and nonsectarian agency that worked with neglected and troubled youth in New York (3, 4). Wise Polier was close with Eleanor Roosevelt, and when the Wiltwyck School for Boys came into financial trouble, she reached out to Roosevelt for help. Roosevelt quickly became a champion for the school and served on the board until her death in 1962 (3).
During her time on the court, Wise Polier was a champion for the poor, especially for poor women. In the 1920s she fought for women laborers and in the 1980s she spoke out against the ban on federal funding for abortions that were medically necessary for poor women (1). However, she often described herself as a poor feminist (1). During a commencement address to Bryn Mawr, Wise Polier is quoted saying, "Surely, the concern for the liberation of women need not and should not be separated from the struggle by women to protect and advance the freedom of all those still denied equal opportunities and full participation in the life of this country" (1). Quick reminder: feminism should be intersectional!
Justine Wise Polier is such an accomplished individual that I will not come close to showcasing all of her achievements and accolades. After retiring from the court in 1973, she was still incredibly active as a child advocate. She was the director of the juvenile justice division of the Children's Defense Fund, the president of the Marion E. Kenworthy-Sarah H. Swift Foundation, and a director of the Tappanz Foundation (2). Please take a few moments to review the timeline below. All of the sources listed have an incredible amount of information as well, especially the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA).
One of the final paragraphs on the JWA’s feature on Wise Polier really stood out, and Justine Wise Polier’s thoughts resonate throughout time:
“Although she had never planned to serve more than a few years in the Family Court, Polier stayed for almost four decades, because ‘As case after case came up, I saw the vast chasms between our rhetoric of freedom, equality and charity, and what we were doing to, or not doing for, poor people, especially children.’ She spent a lifetime working towards a day when ‘the welfare of others’ might come to be recognized ‘not as a dirty word, but as a central concern for all.’” (1)
She never intended to make a career out of family court, but felt it was where she could make lasting change. I implore all of you to let this idea simmer, and see how you can apply it to your own lives in a way that works for you and your goals.
As always, I leave you, dear reader, with an open invitation for feedback. Suggestions, criticisms, questions, corrections - I want it all! I’m trying to help educate the HerStry community on the badass women of our past, but I still have a lot to learn myself.
Jewish Women’s Archive, Women of Valor - Justine Wise Polier
Justine Wise Polier’s Timeline
pulled from JWA Women of Valor, source #1.
1903: Justine Wise is born on April 12 in Oregon to Rabbi Stephen Wise and Louise Waterman Wise
1905: Family moves to New York
1920: Begins college at Bryn Mawr
1922: Transfers to Radcliffe
1923: Works at Elizabeth Peabody Settlement house while attending Radcliffe
1924: Transfers and graduates with her BA from Barnard and then begins work in a textile mills in Passaic, New Jersey
1925: Studies labor relations at International Labor Office in Geneva and then attends Yale Law School, editor of Yale Law Journal
1926: Marries Lee Tulin, together they have one son, Stephen
1927: Textile workers in Passaic, NJ are given the right to unionize, after a year-long battle that Wise Polier was very active in.
1928: Graduates from Yale Law School with her LL.B.
1929: Becomes first woman referee in Workmen's Compensation Division
1932: Husband, Lee Tulin, dies of leukemia
Prepares Study for the Governor's Commission on Medical Costs of Compensation
1934: Becomes Assistant Corporation Counsel for Workmen's Compensation Division;
Serves as Counsel and Secretary to Committee on Unemployment Relief
1935: Appointed Justice of Domestic Relations Court - First woman judge above magistrate in the state
1936: Marries Shad Polier, together they have two children, Trudy and Jonathan
1941: Leave of absence from court to serve as Special Council to Eleanor Roosevelt, Office of Civilian Defense
1942: Establishes the Wiltwyck School for Boys as non-sectarian and interracial
1943: Publishes Everybody's Child, Nobody's Child
1944: Becomes chairman of Louise Wise Services
1971: Helps initiate and assists in class action suit Wilder v. Sugarman(1974)
1973: Retires from Court; Director of Juvenile Justice Project of the Children's Defense Fund
1987: Dies on July 31 in New York City
Ashlee Christensen lives in Pittsburgh, PA. She is an Illinois native - grew up in the Chicago suburbs, went to school at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, and lived in the city of Chicago up until 2015. In June 2015, she packed up with her partner and moved to the city she has absolutely fallen in love with, Pittsburgh! When she's not at work, she can be typically be found in yoga class, working on the next edition of AMPLIFY, cuddling with George the cat, or enjoying trying to figure out what next home improvement task she is going to take on. Follow her nonsense on Twitter: @trashleeinpgh.