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Patricia J. Williams Biography

Taught Strength by Parents, Developed Love of the Law, Started to Write


Lawyer, writer, essayist, educator

Patricia J. Williams is "one of the most provocative intellectuals in American law," as noted in the Columbia University News upon her receipt of the MacArthur "genius" Fellowship in 2000. In her writings and teachings Patricia J. Williams always begins with the notion that experience counts. Society should not let case law—law established by judicial decisions—commercial interests like Hollywood, or powerful political figures manipulate reality and obscure the real motivations and fate of human beings. "The law becomes a battleground of wills," she stated in The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor. "But the extent to which technical legalisms are used to obfuscate [obscure] the human motivations that generate our justice system is the real extent to which we as human beings are disenfranchised. Cultural needs and ideals change.… The need to redefine our laws in keeping with the spirit of cultural flux is what keeps a society alive and humane," she added.

For example, in a 1994 The Nation essay Williams theorized: "The continuing struggle for racial justice is tied up with the degree to which segregation and the outright denial of black humanity have been naturalized in our civilization." To some, such views are unorthodox, but Williams does not shy away from commenting on what she sees as social maladies. In a Newsday opinion/editorial column, she linked the tragic fate of Nicole Brown Simpson—the slain ex-wife of former football superstar O. J. Simpson—to "the invisibility of black and poorer white women who die at the hands of their spouses." (Following a lengthy criminal trial in 1995, a jury found Simpson not guilty of murdering his former wife.) Such outspokenness has led Williams to be regarded as the proverbial fly in the ointment—the bearer of bad news about society, which refuses, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote in The Nation, "to play by the rules of relevance, to stay behind those velvet ropes." Perhaps the question is less what she is than how she got there.

Taught Strength by Parents

Patricia Joyce Williams was born on August 28, 1951, in Boston, one of two daughters of Isaiah Williams, a technical editor, and Ruth Williams, a teacher. Her community, the Roxbury section of Boston, was a white working-class neighborhood when Patricia was quite young. Her mother's black family was apparently accepted because of its long tenure in the area. Still, Williams said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography,(CBB), "There was always the sense that I was 'the colored kid' in school." Things would get worse. About the time Patricia entered seventh grade, classmates began whispering about how "The colored are coming," she told CBB. Parents were going door-to-door talking about declining property values—a vicious rumor fostered by realtors. "It was classic block-busting," Williams said. Her parents fought back by instilling in their daughters a sense of their worth and history.

The encouragement by Williams's parents to work hard at achieving her educational goals paid off when she was admitted to a leading institution, Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She graduated one year early in 1972. Williams then went on to Harvard Law School to become one of "the first crop of affirmative action babies," Williams mused to CBB. It was there that she encountered racial backlash head-on. The Regents of University of California v. Allan Bakke case that challenged admission quotas at a California medical school was being debated and would eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Bakke, a white student was denied admission to the University of California because although he had received higher admissions test scores than some of the students who were admitted, the school's policy was to limit the number of white students to allow for more minorities. Bakke sued the school and later won the right to be admitted. "I spent a lot of time dealing with people who'd come up and ask your LSAT [law school admissions test] scores; it was very confrontational," Williams recalled, during her CBB interview.

Developed Love of the Law

After graduating from Harvard in 1975, Williams took a job as deputy city attorney with the Office of the City Attorney in Los Angeles, a locale that "was as far from Boston as I could go without jumping into the ocean," she told CBB. The job gave her both civil and criminal trial experience, mostly in consumer protection. "People don't think of consumer protection as criminal, but there were cases, for example, where people were saying 'This is a cancer cure' and it was actually volcanic ash," Williams revealed to CBB. She prosecuted cases revolving around issues like sterilization and phony doctors.

In 1978, Williams moved on to a position as staff attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, also in Los Angeles. It was there that she began to focus on her future legal specialty of commercial and contract law. At the Western Center, she also worked on cases concerning credit card scams and questionable banking practices. Her appetite for this line of work soured after a couple of years. Teaching seemed a viable alternative, and Williams also wanted to explore creative writing, an interest that is rarely considered an asset in the dry, just-the-facts practice of law.

Williams's next stop, accordingly, was as associate professor of law at Golden Gate University School of Law for four years beginning in 1980. Then in 1984, an excellent opportunity arrived that afforded her the chance to return to New York, where she had family, and to join in a new public interest law school at City University of New York. Williams was attracted to the idea of a law school that emphasized legal practice and a commitment to the needs of the underserved, particularly the poor. "It was an enormously exciting time," Williams enthused during her CBB interview. "I still think of it as the height of my teaching career." However, the political patron for the law school committed suicide, and the still-not-yet-accredited and left-leaning school ran into political problems with the surrounding conservative community. Then came the first wave of faculty firings. So in 1988 she decided to depart of her own volition. As she told CBB, "The idea of being fired from an unaccredited school because of politics was not the way I wanted my career to go down."

At a Glance …

Born Patricia Joyce Williams, August 28, 1951, in Boston, MA, daughter of Ruth and Isaiah Williams; children; Peter. Education: Wellesley College, BA, 1972; Harvard Law School, JD, 1975.


Office of the City Attorney, Los Angeles, CA, deputy city attorney, 1975-78; Western Center on Law and Poverty, Los Angeles, CA, staff attorney, 1978-80; Golden Gate University School of Law, San Francisco, CA, associate professor of law, 1980-84; City University of New York Law School at Queens College, New York City, NY, associate professor of law, 1984-88; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, visiting associate professor of law, 1988-89; Duke University, Durham, NC, visiting scholar-in-residence, 1990; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, visiting professor of women's studies, 1992; University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, professor of law, 1988-93; Columbia University, New York City, NY, professor of law, 1992–; The Nation, columnist, 1998–.


Board of advisors, Center for Constitutional Rights, Society of American Law Teachers, National Association for Public Interest Law, and The Bell Foundation; Board of directors, National Organization for Women and the Legal Defense and Education.


Pioneer of Civil and Human Rights Award, National Conference of Black Lawyers, 1990; Bruce K. Gould Book Award, 1992, for The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor; Exceptional Merit Media Award, National Women's Political Caucus, 1993; Romnes Endowment for Excellence in Scholarship, University of Wisconsin; MacArthur Fellowship, 2001.

Williams received a tenured-teaching offer at the University of Wisconsin. In addition, she had already committed herself to a visiting associate professorship at Stanford University School of Law in California, teamed with a visiting scholar role at Stanford's Institute for Research on Gender and Women. All told, Williams was with Wisconsin from 1988 to 1993. During that period Williams also accepted a visiting scholar-in-residence spot at Duke University in North Carolina for the fall of 1990. This was followed two years later by a visiting professor of women's studies job at Harvard University's Women's Studies Program in the spring of 1992. She began a professorship at Columbia University School of Law in New York City the same year.

Started to Write

Two very different interests began consuming Williams. One was motherhood; at age 40 and still single, she adopted her son, Peter. The second interest was writing. Williams was never one for the world of endless legal citations and starchy formalism. Indeed, her law review articles sported such colorful titles as "Fetal Fictions: An Exploration of Property Archetypes in Racial and Gendered Contexts" in University of Florida Law Review 81, 1990, and "Spirit-Murdering the Messenger: The Discourse of Fingerpointing as the Law's Response to Racism" in University of Miami Law Review 127, 1987. During the next few years she branched out to the consumer media by writing for publications associated with protest and leftist politics such as Ms., The Village Voice, and The Nation magazines, as well as mainstream periodicals, including The New York Times Book Review and The Christian Science Monitor.

At times, Williams's creative flair clashed with occupational expectations. She was told by the editors of one law review that since she had a very poetic way of writing, she should consider writing short stories. Williams wrote in Alchemy that these editors deemed her style "far too personal for any legal publication," and they added, "if you don't mind our saying so, its publication anywhere will risk your being perceived as quite unstable in the public eye."

Published in 1991 by Harvard University Press, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor is a collection of Williams's legal writings and essays on a range of subjects. The book's subtitle, "Diary of a Law Professor," was not her idea, nor was it her idea to publish the work as a consumer rather than academic book. This categorization "resulted in people reading it as my real diary, and in my mind, it's more calculated than that, a mimicry of various styles," she mentioned to CBB. In her opening chapter, for example, she introduces herself as a bathrobe-clad woman pondering whether she's losing her mind—a takeoff on a similar self-description by the seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes.

For CBB Williams described Alchemy as "a story of my struggle to expand what in the law has been called 'the reasonable man category'—a sense of the tension between myself, historically, and the unreasonable man, to enter into a political, legal, and social debate that challenges the normality that's made a cult of the standard of the reasonable man. To what extent can you expand it to include the 'reasonable woman,' 'reasonable people?' The experience of people who originally weren't considered citizens, human." In her book, Williams also provided commentary on a number of controversial and well-publicized court cases.

Writing about the "Baby M" case, for instance, where surrogate mother Mary Beth Whitehead sued to retain the baby she had borne for a married man and his wife, Williams worries about "the market ethic that says there is nothing that can't be sold." The most trouble-some historical example of this of course is slavery, but now Williams sees its legacies, "when you have markets in bodies and babies…I'm concerned about how 'Baby M' puts children in a market context".

Williams commented on the 1987 Tawana Brawley case in which a 15-year-old black female in upstate New York was found wandering, apparently dazed, with cigarette burns and feces on her body. She implicated three white men but her story was attacked by the press. Prior to admitting that she fabricated the story, Brawley was defended by such well-known figures as the black social activist Al Sharpton. Williams saw a scenario where "a cast of extraordinarily self-interested men did all her [Brawley's] speaking for her," and the press barely considered what Brawley herself said, much less felt. Williams saw the Howard Beach case, where three black men with car problems were severely beaten, one fatally, by whites in a white neighborhood for just being there as "a story of how boundaries are drawn, how little sub-nation-states get drawn in the name of neighborhood values and also the tension between property values and human rights."

Critics were generally enthusiastic about Alchemy. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writing for The Nation magazine called it "one of the most invitingly personal, even vulnerable books I've read," while the New York Times admired its "valuable insights" but criticized its academic language, which at times "shuts you out." Alchemy also received a number of book awards including one from Ms. magazine who called the work one of "the feminist classics of the last 20 years [that] literally changes women's lives."

Provided Thoughtful Legal
Insight in Writings

In October of 1995 Williams's The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice was published. Like Alchemy, this book was in keeping with Williams's concern about social issues, especially the social divisions created by such labels as "welfare mother," "Jewish American princess," and "redneck." Williams exposes how the labels Americans' use for each other reveals as much about the label-maker as the one labeled.

Williams explored racism in great depth in Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, published in 1997. In the book, Williams picks apart the history of racism and the social impediments to overcoming its legacy. After receiving the MacArthur Fellowship in 2000, Williams set to work on another book, a personal memoir of sorts. Published in 2004, Open House: On Family Food, Friends, Piano Lessons and the Search for a Room of My Own offers insights into the larger social issues of race and gender, but also discusses the more personal aspects of life at age 50, single motherhood, and the details of interracial friendships.

Williams clearly care deeply about her society and hopes to spark positive change. She seldom hesitates to bring to light those injustices that impact the human condition. Issues such as welfare reform, affirmative action, and congressional attacks upon what she considers the weak and defenseless members of society are all potential subjects for her legal mind and her writer's heart. Continuing her column Diary of a Mad Law Professor in The Nation and teaching at Columbia University, Williams keeps her finger on the pulse of legal issues in American society.

Selected writings

The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor, Harvard University Press, 1991.

The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice, Harvard University Press, 1995.

Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race, Reith Lectures, 1997; reprinted by Noonday Press, 1998.

Open House: On Family Food, Friends, Piano Lessons and the Search for a Room of My Own, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004.


Atlantic, May 14, 1998.

Journal of Negro History, January 2001.

New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1991, p. 10.

Nation, June 10, 1991, p. 766.

San Jose Mercury News, December 1, 2004.

Washington Post, August 16, 1991, p. D5.


"Patricia J. Williams: Columnist," The Nation, http://www.thenation.com/directory/bios/patricia_j_williams (October 11, 2005).

"Professor Patricia Williams Named MacArthur Fellow," Columbia University News, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/pr/00/06/williams.html (October 11, 2005).


Additional information for this profile was obtained through a CBB interview with Williams on April 6, 1995.

—Joan Oleck and

Sara Pendergast

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