The Education of Brooksley Born, Part 1

The other night, I watched a Frontline special called "The Warning" from 2009.  Immediately I thought this was a bad idea, but even without understanding all the economic and market terms and lingo you can easily understand the message and the end result of the interviews.  The reason we are in a recession started ten years earlier.

The focus of the Frontline piece was on Brooksley Born, retired attorney and former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).  As a lone female financial regulator, Born would have had an uphill battle in anything she wanted to do while at the CFTC.  But she took on the Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Deputy Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, Under Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner, and Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Arthur Levitt, Jr., along with the banking lobby and a booming Wall Street.

I was fascinated by the show.  By the story of Brooksley Born, by the cast of characters – all familiar names, by the fact that’d I’d somehow missed this story originally or hadn’t been paying attention to the story (understandable, since I was in high school then). As soon as the show ended I got online looking for more information.  What I found was an overwhelming number of stories, articles and blog posts over the past 12 years.  It turned out to be too much for one post – so here you have part one: Brooksley Born’s story.

Brooksley Born’s education and career path serves as a reminder to me of just how recently some changes for women have happened.  Being the only female financial regulator would not have been a huge shock – because she’d already been the only female or one of a few in other settings.  But it’s her and women like her that made it possible for the rest of us to go to an office everyday and do what we want.

As an undergraduate at Stanford, Born was interested in attending medical school and becoming a doctor.  A career counselor told her she must only be after the higher salary she would make, and it would be more appropriate to be a nurse.  Born thought otherwise, and instead went to Stanford Law School – with four other women and 95 men in 1961.

Despite little opportunity to participate in class, which I understand is a huge part of law school, Born excelled and became the top student in her class.  Some professors refused to acknowledge the female students, and some insisted on only questioning female students for entire classes to prove that they didn’t belong.  Born was able to prove them wrong.  She became the first woman to president of the Stanford Law Review, though the faculty told her they were prepared to take over if she faltered.

Tradition dictates that the top student from each Stanford Law class is given a Supreme Court Clerkship – but Born was passed over by the selection committee, who submitted the names of two male students instead.  So Born went to Washington on her own and met with two Supreme Court Justices about clerkships. Justice Potter Stewart wasn’t ready for a female clerk, but Justice Arthur Goldberg was willing to help.  He gave her a note for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. District, because, while he couldn’t have a female clerk, she seemed qualified.

Work/family balance was not something discussed at the time, mostly because women either worked or stayed at home.  While it is discussed and debated constantly today, Born figured it out when she was first married and had young children.  Her husband was offered a fellowship in Boston – so she took a leave absence from her job with Arnold & Porter, and found a job as a research assistant to a law professor.

Back in Washington and with young children, Born went part time at the firm until her children were in school.  She also made partner during that time.  An amazing feat now – unheard of then! Eventually rising up, Born became head of the derivatives practice.

Born raised two children, practiced law, and became partner – you’d think that would fill your time.  Instead she did much more.  With another female lawyer, Marna Tucker, they developed the first “Women and Law” class at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law and Georgetown Law Center, focusing on prejudicial treatment of women under laws of the United States.

Co-founder of the National Women’s Law Center and the ABA Women’s Caucus, was the first woman on the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary for which she conducted a review of Sandra Day O’Connor when she was nominated to the Supreme Court, as the first female justice.

Even in retirement she has continued work with the ABA on an oral history of women in law.  In 2009, she received the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award and was appointed by then Speaker Nancy Pelosi as Commissioner to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

In 1996 President Clinton appointed Born to the CFTC.  Created in the 1970s, the CFTC existed to regulate futures contracts – at the time often purchased by farmers to reduce the risk of price fluctuations.  Over 20 years, futures grew and changed, and, just before Born took office, openings had been made in the futures market, where no one besides the buyers and sellers – mostly banks on either side – knew what was happening.

Check back next week for Part 2 and the rest of Brooksley Born’s story!

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  • I saw that program when it originally aired and so I won’t be a spoiler…but the most revelatory part of her story is Part 2, isn’t it? If only more films documented how many women go up against the status quo only to be discredited by the “brotherhood,” I think women would better understand patriarchy.

    One thing I remember about her, assuming I’m remembering correctly, is that she came from a very upper-class background. I suspect that having the confidence of the rich, as well as the confidence of a first-class education, contributed to her self-concept and her courage to take on the big boys. What do you think?

    I’d also be interested to know if her parents, in particular her father, thought she was highly intelligent and encouraged her to pursue her career path. Psychological research has pointed in this direction, at least for earlier generations; the women who succeeded had the endorsement and encouragement of their fathers. For women making their way in a world hostile to female power and intelligence, having a father who believes in you translates into believing that you have the RIGHT to take your place among the anointed. I wonder if that’s true for younger women today…

  • oakes52426

    Brooksley Born takes a right decisions to give proper guideline of the students. Educators also like his service and it helps them to learn so more well in here.