By Claudia Ansorge
When Vassar College denied Cynthia Fisher tenure in 1985, the decision led to a battle that would be fought in the courts for more than a decade. The inequality at issue was marital status discrimination. For Cynthia,
it was a test of integrity as well. “It helped me very much to be a Quaker,” she said. “When you testify in court, you’re asked to swear an oath. You don’t swear an oath as a Quaker, not on a Bible. You stand up and
say the truth as you know the truth.” Cynthia had been hired by Vassar in 1977 as a faculty member in the biology department. By 1985, she was on the tenure track as an Assistant Professor. She was also a married woman on the faculty of an institution that had never tenured a married woman in the “hard sciences” of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and earth science. During the previous century, dozens of single women had been tenured at the college in these departments. Teaching and scholarship records were the alleged reasons she was given for being denied, fired and given a year to find another job. In response, Cynthia sued Vassar College for marital discrimation under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Under Title VII, plaintiff must prove that any apparent discrimination was intentional, not merely inadvertent. The plaintiff team in Fisher vs Vassar College consisted of Cynthia, her statistician husband Armen Fisher, and her solo practitioner lawyer Eleanore Jackson Piel. John Cannon, a senior labor partner at the New York City law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, was the attorney for Vassar College. “We were standing up against legal obstacles, postponements and huge, deep pockets,”Cynthia explained. “It was a David and Goliath
battle.” Almost ten years later, in 1994, Judge Constance Baker Motley, in federal court in the southern district of New York, found that Vassar College had intentionally discriminated. In a 100-page opinion, the judge stated that, “In the hard sciences at Vassar, there was a belief that a married woman with children could not be a dedicated and productive scientist, and therefore she was not one, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.” By court injunction, Cynthia was back at Vassar. The first court battle had been won, but the case would not be over for years. The College did not challenge Cynthia’s record of teaching, scholarship and service which was supported at trial by three expert, outside witnesses. But the College appealed on its claim that plaintiff had not proved defendant’s intent to discriminate on the baasis of marital status.
In total, the case took 13 years, through various appeals and with Cynthia being fired and then reinstated three times by court order. The Legal Advocacy Board of the American Association of University Women voted to award her $10,000 to help defray costs associated with petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court that, finally, in 1998, refused to hear the case. Cynthia left Vassar but not without leaving reforms in her
wake that included the tenure of several married women in the science departments.
During those trying years, Cynthia posted a quote by Abraham Lincoln on the door of her office: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” When asked recently about the case, she
quoted another from U.S.Representative John Lewis: “I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.