NOLA native Trestman writing bio of legal pioneer Bessie Margolin

Marlene Trestman, a New Orleans native who now teaches law at Loyola University in Maryland, received grants to help her complete the first biography of fellow New Orleanian Bessie Margolin, a pioneering woman lawyer who defended the New Deal.

Margolin was raised in the New Orleans Jewish Children’s Home and received her law degree at age 21 from Tulane University, where she was civil law editor of the Tulane Law Review. In 1933, she was became the first female attorney hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation to provide electricity to poor rural areas.

Margolin went on to serve in the Department of Labor for 33 years and oversaw the court enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act and Equal Pay Act during her tenure. Despite so many accomplishments, she had to fight for fair pay and well-deserved promotions in her own career. When she retired from the federal government in 1972, nearly 600 U.S. Supreme Court and appellate cases had been prepared under her immediate direction and review.

Trestman said Margolin “was a trailblazing woman lawyer who used her brains, beauty and Southern charm to prove equality for women while contributing to three historic events of the 20th century.” In addition to overseeing the Labor and Equal Pay acts, she defended the constitutionality of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, and drafted the rules for the Nazi war crimes Subsequent Proceedings in Nuremberg.

She also argued 28 cases before the Supreme Court, winning 25.

“A book about Margolin is long overdue, and I’m thrilled to have been given the chance to tell her story,” Trestman said.

A few months ago, she received a grant from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She recently received the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend, a highly competitive program that supports advanced research and writing “that is of value to humanities scholars, general audiences, or both.”

The Hadassah-Brandeis grant noted the biography “will make an important contribution to American history and Jewish women’s history.”

Last year, Trestman spoke at the annual meeting of the Jewish Children’s Regional Service, the successor agency to the Children’s Home. Trestman had been a client of JCRS as a foster child, and like Margolin graduated from Isidore Newman School.
Trestman met Margolin in 1974 and spent time with her as she went through college and law school.

Part of the biography appeared in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Supreme Court History.