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Sylvia Roberts papers

Identifier: NA-282

Scope and Contents

The Sylvia Roberts papers primarily consist of notes, documents, and legal records related to cases tried by Sylvia Roberts both as a lawyer for the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund and as an independant lawyer. Other components of the collection include documents related to Sylvia’s involvement in the National Organization for Women and the Legal Defense and Education Fund and personal correspondence. The collection has been divided, topically, into eight series: (1) NOW Legal Defense and Education Funds and National Organization for Women, (2) Trials, (3) Johnson v. The University of Pittsburgh, (4) Miscellaneous Casework, (5) Miscellaneous Office Files, (6) Early Practice and Course Work, (7) Audio-Visual Materials, (8) flat files. Each series retains Roberts’s original folder labels and order when possible.

This collection is relevant to those interested in the rights and legal treatment of the mentally ill, women’s rights and the use of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to address sexual discrimination, the legal rights of women in Louisiana, and the legal history and prevention of domestic violence.

Additional collections of Sylvia Roberts’ papers are archived at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (papers relating to Roberts’ tenure as a member and secretary of the Louisiana Commission on the Status of Women) and at University of Louisiana at Lafayette (papers pertaining to Roberts’ work with respect to the Equal Rights Amendment and various working files). Additional materials directly related to Roberts’ legal work can be found at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. These materials include the Papers of Sharon Leijoy Johnson, the Papers of Margaret Cussler, the Records of the National Organization for Women, and an interview with Roberts which was recorded as a part of the Tully-Crenshaw Feminist Oral History Project.


  • Creation: 1960 - 2015

Conditions Governing Access

Newcomb Archives and Vorhoff Library Special Collections Policy Governing Ethical Use of the Sylvia Roberts Papers

The material featured in the Sylvia Roberts papers is primarily intended for the purposes of non-commercial private study, teaching, learning, and research.

We ask that users treat the materials in this collection with respect. We ask that anyone requesting permission to use content from the Sylvia Roberts papers in a publication apply the following principles:

• Please ensure you consider traditional cultural expressions and all ethical concerns in using the material, and make sure that any information relating to the creator or subjects is clear and accurate.

The Sylvia Roberts papers have been made available with the express permission of Cynthia Roberts Capps, executor of Sylvia Roberts’ estate, through her donation of the collection to the Newcomb Archives and Vorhoff Library Special Collections. Because the practice of law in the United States is not limited to analyses of the decisions of the courts, and because the work of lawyers is present in nearly all aspects and realms of American life, the Newcomb Archives believes that the personal and professional papers of lawyers are vital to a holistic understanding American life (see Covitz, 2001). For this reason, and in the spirit of our mission to make records documenting the history of women and gender in the Gulf South available to researchers, access to the Sylvia Roberts papers is not restricted.

The Newcomb Archives respects the intellectual property rights, as well as ethical, moral, and traditional knowledge concerns of the many individuals whose lives are documented in the Sylvia Roberts papers, especially those advised by Roberts in her capacity as their lawyer. The client files that have been donated as part of this collection contain medical records, depositions, and other documents that provide information about individual client physical and mental health. These records were released by the client and permission was provided for legal use. However, this information is personal and requires careful attention to its ethical use. Users of this collection are advised that the legal files in the Sylvia Roberts papers contain sensitive information. Should a researcher wish to publish any information where a client is identifiable, they must obtain permission from the client, or if the client is deceased the legal personal representative of the client.

For all archival materials that contain lawyer-client case files, we make every effort to respect the duty of confidentiality between lawyer and client. While it is unlikely, if a researcher believes that they have found information that would be protected as a privileged communication between a client and attorney the researcher should notify the Newcomb Archives and Vorhoff Library Special Collections immediately so that information can be evaluated or removed from the records.

Out of respect for the confidentiality privileges of Roberts’ clients, personal identifiers have been redacted from the online finding aid to the collection for all case files for which the last inclusive date of legal materials is less than fifty (50) years from the present date. After fifty years have elapsed, there will be no additional restrictions on access to these materials.

Conditions Governing Use

United States copyright law (Title 17, U.S. Code) governs the making of photocopies and other reproductions of copyrighted material. Under certain conditions specified in the law, libraries and archives are authorized to furnish a photocopy or other reproduction. One of these specified conditions is that the photocopy or reproduction is not to be used for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research. If a user makes a request for or later uses a reproduction for purposes in excess of fair use, the user may be liable for copyright infringement.

This institution reserves the right to refuse a copy or reproduction request if, in its opinion, fulfilling the request may violate copyright law.

It is the responsibility of the user to obtain permission to publish from the owner of the copyright. The user agrees to indemnify and hold harmless Tulane University, its officers, employees, and agents from and against all claims made by any person asserting that he or she is an owner of copyright.

Biographical / Historical

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.


86.5 Linear Feet (85 banker's boxes and 1 flat oversize box)

Language of Materials


Caroline Parris
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Repository Details

Part of the Newcomb Archives and Vorhoff Collection Repository

Newcomb Institute
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Suite 341
New Orleans LA 70118 USA US