A 1979 press release announcing that the congresswoman and Radcliffe alumna (magna cum laude, Class of 1962) Elizabeth Holtzman had just selected the Schlesinger Library as the home for her papers concluded: “Committed to values of human equality, justice, and honesty, Elizabeth Holtzman is a remarkable human being and a leader with both scope and an unswerving conscience. Congresswoman Holtzman is a worthy mentor for American women today and for those in the future who will use her papers for research at the Schlesinger Library.”
After more than 30 years, Holtzman continues to lead by example. Her collection, which is still growing, documents her career as a feminist, an activist, and an advocate in and out of political life from the 1970s through the 1990s. Early in 2016, a new finding aid to Holtzman’s original gift, along with finding aids to addenda and to the audio and video material in the collection, will provide researchers with a detailed description of the Elizabeth Holtzman Papers and the light they shine not only on a life of public service but also on crucial decades of the 20th century.
Holtzman was in the thick of things in those years. After graduating from Radcliffe and then Harvard Law School (JD ’65), she was recruited to work for Mayor John Lindsay, becoming the first woman assistant to a New York City mayor. In 1972, Holtzman ran a grassroots campaign against the Brooklyn Democratic congressman Emmanuel Celler, a 50-year incumbent, and in a stunning upset, became the youngest woman ever elected to the US House of Representatives, where she served four terms. As a freshman, Holtzman served on the House Judiciary Committee and participated in the Richard Nixon impeachment proceedings. In 1978, she worked against long odds to extend the deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment. Four years later, she was elected as New York City’s first female district attorney and led successful efforts to reform New York State’s rape laws and strengthen whistle-blower laws. In 1989, Holtzman was elected New York City’s first female comptroller; she launched programs to encourage minority- and women-owned firms to bid for city projects and oversaw the divestment of millions of dollars of New York City’s pension fund assets from South Africa.
These milestones and the ups and downs of Holtzman’s career so far are documented in the collection already here. Although access requires her permission, and some government records are closed for periods determined by law, the story that unfolds is impressive by any standard, and it’s not over yet. Holtzman has coauthored three books with Cynthia Cooper: Who Said It Would Be Easy? One Woman’s Life in the Political Arena (Arcade Publishing, 1996), The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens (Nation Books, 2006), and Cheating Justice: How Bush and Cheney Attacked the Rule of Law, Plotted to Avoid Prosecution, and What We Can Do about It (Beacon Press, 2012). She has blogged about politics, women’s rights, and the civil rights movement for the Huffington Post. These 21st-century endeavors will be reflected in materials yet to be added to the Elizabeth Holtzman Papers.