Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and His Lawyer Wife, Cathy: an Equal Rights Couple

Judy Flander
Aug 13, 2020 · 5 min read

The Washington Star-News, February 3, 1974: Justice Douglas, who often takes over the cooking, champions his wife’s career. Cathy champions her husband’s onion and garlic chicken, and a worldview that would accept “all mankind.”

Whoever gets home first starts dinner at the William O. Douglas house in Northwest Washington. Sometimes it’s pretty, vital Cathy Douglas, 30, an attorney, and “the only female fellow” at the Institute of Public Interest Representation at Georgetown University Law School.

And sometimes, it’s Supreme Court Justice Douglas, 75-year-old veteran of 34 years on the high court and more in the forefront of liberal causes. “Bill makes a very good chicken dish with lots of onions and garlic that I don’t even know how to make,” says Mrs. Douglas.

If that sounds a little like the typical, determinedly liberated contemporary couple with a his-and-her-schedule for putting out the garbage, well, Cathy and Bill Douglas both practice the liberal principles he’s been preaching for the last half century. Cathy Douglas, outgoing, outspoken on most subjects, if adamantly mum on the ramifications of her personal life, says she couldn’t be married to anyone who didn’t support her as a person and respect her career. “I wouldn’t still be married to Bill if he objected to my being a lawyer.”

Far from objecting, Justice Douglas has been “my primary supporter in everything I’ve wanted to do.” He started doing some of the cooking when his wife was studying for law school exams, and now that she’s working long days at the Georgetown Law Center, he helps her regularly in the kitchen. They have a woman who cleans house for them two days a week.The couple was married seven years ago, before Cathy Douglas finished her undergraduate work in sociology at Marylhurst College, near Portland, Ore., where she was born. “I decided that when I came to Washington, I’d do everything I’d planned to do anyway.”

She finished her college work at American University, then decided to try a year of law school. For two reasons. She discovered that she was action-oriented — “I’d seen Bill involved in so many things.” — and sociology didn’t really bring about the societal changes she wanted. “And,” she adds, laughing, “I was curious to see what Bill really does.” She is still continually amused about the distance between them professionally, she a beginning attorney and he, already a historical giant in law.

“Bill’s end of the law is so different from mine, and I say that with great understatement,” she adds with a wry grin. Justice Douglas doesn’t serve as his wife’s built-in legal advisor, though. By the time they get home at the end of the day neither of them wants to discuss law. “Bill doesn’t help with individual cases or problems,” Mrs. Douglas says, “but it’s an advantage to be around a sophisticated legal person. It’s hard not to be influenced by a man with such a fine mind.” And she adds, with her radiant smile, “I don’t know if it helps me write a better brief.”

Mrs. Douglas has a 10-month scholarship at the Institute for Public Interest Representation, and when she finishes at the end of June, she’ll receive a master’s degree in administration law from Georgetown. She has passed the bar in both the State of Washington, where she has her legal residence, and in the District of Columbia, and she hopes to continue to work in “public interest law.”

The Institute, she explains, represents the public point-of-view before federal administrators, agencies and courts. In one recent case, the Institute represented the Sierra Club before the Atomic Energy Commission. Currently, Mrs. Douglas is writing comments on regulations of the Department of Housing, Education and Welfare pertaining to sex discrimination in admission to medical schools.

She doesn’t consider herself a joiner, but she is on the board of the International Institute of Sex Identities, an outgrowth of the International Institute of Women Studies, a research organization that is trying to assemble all that is known about the sexual nature of women, men and children. She became interested because “as a person with somewhat a strong mind,” she was annoyed by the discrimination — subtle and blatant — she felt as a woman.

Mrs. Douglas perceives the women’s movement in terms of total social reform for all mankind. “It is important that the movement not just be for women; it should symbolically recognize all the people who have not previously been accepted in our society.”

And it is to the advantage of women to take this broader view. “Unless we are interested in equality for everyone, we won’t change our own social circumstances.” When she and her husband were in China last fall, Mrs. Douglas spoke to a number of women about the goals of their women’s movement.

“Of course, things are a lot different there. For one thing, the society is geared to freeing both parents from child care. But the women told me that they wanted to show the men that women’s work is valuable. And, more to the point, they want to prove that unless women are freed, the proletariat cannot be free. Until recent years, Mrs. Douglas notes, “blacks, women and children in America were not recognized constitutionally as persons. Now they are trying to gain rights on a societal level. We are still left with a system that doesn’t recognize all mankind.”

For a long time Mrs. Douglas thought the very best way to help others was on a one-to-one basis. During her last two years at Marylhurst, she lived and worked in a resident treatment center as one of a number of group parents of girls. She took them to and from high school, tutored them and was their friend. But if she was of any lasting help to these girls, she was aware that “next year there would be more of them, new faces would take their places.”

The trouble, she decided is that there really isn’t any place in society for children when the family breaks down. “As important as fine treatment is, I want to do something on a larger scale — through law, through legislation. As law goes, so goes your society.”

The Judy Flander Interviews

Judy Flander

Written by

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.

The Judy Flander Interviews

Judy Flander is an entertainment feature writer and television critic who for many years during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s wrote insightful interviews of many well known people, and some not so well known then, were published in newspapers and magazines across the US.

Judy Flander

Written by

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.

The Judy Flander Interviews

Judy Flander is an entertainment feature writer and television critic who for many years during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s wrote insightful interviews of many well known people, and some not so well known then, were published in newspapers and magazines across the US.

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