Sylvia Roberts (1933-2014) is known for her legal work on behalf of patients at the east Louisiana State Hospital’s Forensic Unit, for the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDEF), as an educator and advocate for the legal rights of women in Louisiana, and on the behalf of victims of domestic violence.
Born in Bryan, Texas, Roberts graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1953. She attended both Louisiana State University and Tulane University law schools. After graduating from Tulane in 1956, she spent a year at the Sorbonne in Paris studying comparative law. Upon returning to Louisiana, she worked for the law firm of H. Alva Brumfield in New Orleans and, later, in their Baton Rouge office. These early years of Roberts’ legal career were spent representing plaintiffs in insurance and malpractice lawsuits. In 1964, Sylvia began working with patients at the East Louisiana State Hospital’s Forensic Unit. She effectively used the legal system to fight for better hospital facilities, to improve patient care, and to increase the availability of mental health treatment in Louisiana. She also served as chairman of the subcommittee on mental illness of the Louisiana Governor’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. As a result of her work on behalf of the mentally ill, she received commendations from the Louisiana Psychological Association and the Louisiana Association for Mental Health.
In 1966, Roberts participated in the founding of the National Organization for Women. She served as NOW’s first Southern Regional Director and as president of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. As general counsel of the NOW LDEF, Roberts represented women in employment discrimination cases. In 1969, Roberts argued the first sex discrimination case appealed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Weeks v. Southern Bell. The decision in this case stated that employers could not refuse to consider a woman for a job unless “all or substantially all women” could be proven incapable of performing the tasks required. With fellow NOW LDEF member, Marilyn Hall Patel, Roberts created the first Judicial Education Project which presented sexual discrimination research material to judges as part of their training.
From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, Roberts represented many women in sexual discrimination cases on behalf of LDEF often citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These cases spanned a range of employment fields from academia, to industrial manufacturing, to healthcare. When not preparing and arguing cases on behalf of LDEF, Roberts focused on the legal rights and status of women in Louisiana. She served as Secretary to the Louisiana Commission on the Status of Women, was a member of the National News Council, and chair of the committee on the Rights of Women of the American Bar Association. During this time, Roberts also collaborated with fellow members of the Association for Women Attorneys on Corpus Christi Parish Credit Union v. Selina K. Martin, a 1978 case which led to the end Louisiana’s Head and Master laws.
By the early 1980s, Roberts shifted her efforts to focus almost exclusively on Louisiana women. She worked to educate Louisiana women about their legal rights with respect to marriage, separation, and divorce. In 1981, she incorporated The Legal Picture, Inc, an organization dedicated to educating Louisiana residents about their legal rights.
In the early 1990s, Roberts refocused her attentions to the awareness and prevention of domestic violence. In 1995, Roberts successfully represented Lynn Gildersleeve Michelli in Michelli v. Michelli, the first case to define the phrase “history of family violence”. With Lynn Gildersleeve, Roberts co-founded V.O.I.C.E.S. (Violence Only Increases Crime, Educate to Stop it), an organization dedicated to preventing abuse through educational programs with children and teenagers.
Roberts remained active with the National Women’s Political Caucus of Baton Rouge, V.O.I.C.E.S., and other small organizations until her death in 2014. Sylvia Roberts’ lifelong advocacy on behalf of the victims of mental illness, workplace discrimination, the legal system, and domestic abuse is exemplified through her tireless pursuit of legal justice and efforts to educate the public.