Paula Ettelbrick and Feminist Leadership

Posted on October 8th, 2011 by Vina Tran

From Urvashi Vaid, the Center’s Engaging Tradition Project Director.  Vaid is a former staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project and the former Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, whose think tank she also directed. Crossposted from Urvashi Vaid’s blog, VaidBlog:


On October 7, 2011, the progressive, feminist and queer movements lost a brilliant leader and tireless activist when Paula Ettelbrick succumbed to a year-long battle with cancer. Paula’s career, from her graduation from Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, to her tenure with numerous LGBT organizations and projects, was a testament to her dedication and her moral, feminist vision. Among other projects, Paula worked with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (as staff attorney and legal director), the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (as its Family Policy Project Director), the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (as its Executive Director), and the Stonewall Community Foundation (as Executive Director).
She was a close colleague for more than 25 years, a ferociously principled woman, a stubborn and determined campaigner for the perspectives she believed in, a beautiful and sexy dyke, and a loving, good natured woman who loved her kids, her partners (current and ex) and enjoyed good food, nature, love and pleasure.

Most of all, Paula was a strong, outspoken and brilliant feminist — something I respected deeply about her. She had an unapologetic faith in the inclusive vision of LGBT liberation; a commitment to economic and racial justice and an optimism about the ability of women and men to transform themselves and our worlds. At the most bleak moments in our lives, Paula was positive, practical, good-humored and unapologetically critical in her thinking.

Her passing makes me think more broadly of lesbian feminist leadership both within the LGBT movement and outside.

Despite the truth that many lesbians (bi, trans inclusive here) who are or have been leaders (grassroots, institutional or otherwise) in the LGBT movement hold feminist politics, it’s hard to characterize lesbian leadership inside and beyond the LGBT movement as feminist. A gender-based analysis and creative thinking about how to solve economic, social and political barriers to queer and female lives, has been replaced by the goal of fitting into the patriarchal institutions around us. Lesbians inside the LGBT movement are largely silent on gender-based economic and political disparities. Queer men and women rarely examine the forms of sexism we still encounter within our communities. And lesbian leaders who work outside the LGBT movement are, overwhelmingly, largely silent about being lesbians.

According to the November 2009 benchmarking report issued by The White House Project, women on average make about 78 cents to the dollar made by a man (a fact that I suspect is true within the LGBT movement institutions as well as beyond) and women of color make much less (64 cents for black women and 52 cents to the dollar for hispanic women). The White House Project’s indicators of women leaders progress reveals that across 10 leadership sectors (politics, business, entertainment, academia among others) women hold 18% of top leadership positions; although 48% of law school graduates are women, only 18% of partners in law firms are female and only about 25% of judges are women. The US ranked 71st out of 189 countries in the representation of women in state and national legislatures. (See White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, November 2009,

Like our brothers, lesbians today do not seek to disturb the peace, we seek to keep it. Marriage is an obvious example, and Paula will be long-remembered (and in some corners derided) for her critical questioning of marriage (in her much-cited article, “Since When Is Marriage A Path To Liberation?”). But there are other examples– the LGBT movement’s political abstention from and abandonment of the ongoing fight for reproductive freedom (as if control of our sexual and reproductive lives was not a centrally queer concern); the absence of the needs of economically struggling queers from the mainstream movement agenda (why can’t HRC provide some leadership on behalf of poor and low income LGBT folks?); the dearth of queer voices condemning the racism of the so-called Tea Party and the Republican Party; our abandonment of sexual freedom and choice as non-negotiable aspirations of our movement, in favor of normalization.

I do want it all: to maximize freedom and self-determination for each queer person (and straight person); to achieve full human rights without qualification; to maximize opportunities to achieve and realize the good life for each of us. What I am struck by as I grapple with losing Paula’s ethical and staunchly feminist voice is how few of us, including me at times, push for that broad a goal.

Perhaps that is the tribute we could give to the more than 25 years Paula Ettelbrick put into the LGBT movement — to make a commitment to raise the broad progressive agenda, to make the difficult critique, to pose and champion the inclusive and often unpopular question; in short, to be feminists, as men, women, and gender nonconforming people, and through that to make a commitment to increase the leadership voice and power of lesbians everywhere.


  1. Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » Paula Ettelbrick and …

  2. Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » Paula Ettelbrick and …

  3. Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » Paula Ettelbrick and …

  4. Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » Paula Ettelbrick and …

  5. Paula Ettelbrick was a “brilliant leader and tireless activist,” says Urvashi Vaid, a colleague & friend.

  6. Paula Ettelbrick and Feminist Leadership & a critique of leadership w/o feminism

  7. Getting a home venture off from the ground serves as a significant issue. So the right startup designated GroundBreaker has created a white-label crowdfunding approach that housing entrepreneurs may to raise capital for their ..

  8. Many merit for creating the effort to argue this, I stroke starkly in relation to this and enjoy studying a vast deal extra taking place this subject. Condition practical, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your website with a fantastic deal added info? It’s especially beneficial representing me.

Add a comment

Comments are subject to moderation and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
Columbia Law School or Columbia University.



"Homeland" Security Abortion Rights Activism Adoption adultery Advocacy Affordable Care Act Alien Tort Claims Act Amicus Brief Asylum Bankruptcy BDS Bullying Census Politics Children Citizenship Civil Unions Clinic Columbia Law School Compulsory Marriage Condoms Contraception Contraception Mandate Cordoba House Criminal Law Cures for Homosexuality Defense of Marriage Act Disability Rights Discrimination Divorce Domestic Partnership Domestic Violence Domestic Workers Don't Ask Don't Tell Earth Day Economic Justice Education Egypt Elections Employment Discrimination ENDA Estate Planning Events Family Law Fellowships femininity Feminism Free Speech Gender and Technology Gender Identity Discrimination Gendering the Economy Gender Justice GSL Online Haiti Hate Crimes Health Care Hilary Clinton Hillary Clinton Hiring HIV HIV Discrimination Hobby Lobby Homelessness Homophobia Housing Human Rights Identity Politics Illegitimacy (sic) Immigration Reform In-ing Incest India International Law Intersectional Feminism Islamophobia Israel Jobs Justice Sotomayor King & Spalding Labor Trafficking Land Reform Law School Legal Profession Legal Scholarship Lesbian & Gay Parenting LGBT Parenting Marital Status Discrimination Marriage Marriage Equality Masculinity Medicaid Michelle Obama Migration Military National Security Obama Administration Obama Appointments Obergefell Outing OWS Palestine Parenting Pinkwashing Policing Politics of the Veil Polyamory Popular Culture Pornograpy Pregnancy Presidential Politics Prisons Privacy Products Liability Profanity Prop 8 Prosecutorial Discretion Publications Public Rights/Private Conscience Public Rights/Private Conscience Project Queer Theory Queer vs. Gay Rights Race and Racism Racial Stereotyping Rape Religion Religious Accommodation Religious Exemption Religious Exemptions Religious Freedom Restoration Act Religious Fundamentalism Reproductive Rights Reproductive Technology RFRA Romania Rwanda Sartorial Commentary Schools Sex Discrimination Sex Education Sex Stereotyping Sexting Sex Trafficking Sexual Assault Sexual Duplicity Sexual Harassment Sexual Health Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic Sexual Orientation Discrimination Sex Work Silencing of voices SMUG Sodomy Law Reform Solidarity Sports Supreme Court Surrogacy Technology Title IX Trafficking Transgender Uganda Uncategorized Violence Women and Poverty Women of Color Work Zimbabwe

Academic Calendar  |  Resources for Employers  |  Campus Map & Directory  |  Columbia University  |  Jobs at Columbia  |  Contact Us

© Copyright 2009, Columbia Law School. For questions or comments, please contact the webmaster.