Leo Kanowitz, 81; wrote first book about gender discrimination in law

Times Staff Writer

Leo Kanowitz, a law professor who wrote the first book that examined legal discrimination against women and that influenced law schools across the country to establish it as a field of study, has died. He was 81.

Kanowitz, a longtime professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, died Saturday from complications of diabetes and heart failure at his Berkeley home, said his wife, Elizabeth.

“What Leo did that was so distinctive was lay the intellectual foundation for being able to look at these issues, not just as women’s rights issues but as human rights and civil rights issues,” said Herma Hill Kay, a UC Berkeley law professor.

In his landmark 1969 book, “Women and the Law: The Unfinished Revolution,” Kanowitz helped shape the dialogue about sex discrimination issues at colleges and in Congress at a time when there were few female law professors to take up the cause.


One measure of his success: Once there were enough qualified female law professors to teach the subject, it became politically incorrect for him to do so at the college, said Marsha Cohen, a Hastings law professor.

In 1970, The Times referred to “Women and the Law” as “the most important work in the field.”

The book documented “massive evidence of sex-based legal inequality,” the Journal of Marriage and the Family reported in 1971. It outlined the differential treatment of men and women in areas as diverse as marriageable age, minimum-wage laws, married names, alimony support and property rights.

The book also helped proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment bolster their arguments at Congressional hearings. In 1970, Kanowitz testified in favor of the ERA, arguing that “it is necessary for all branches of government to demonstrate an unshakable intention to eliminate every last vestige of sex-based discrimination in American law.”


Another of Kanowitz’s 10 books -- “Equal Rights: The Male Stake” (1981) -- argued that abolishing sex discrimination required eliminating all gender-based legal distinctions, including those that favored women.

“That was also influential and helped propel the argument even further,” said Kay, who co-wrote an early casebook on sex-based discrimination.

The fourth and last child of Jewish immigrant parents, Kanowitz was born in 1926 in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Morris and Jennie Kanowitz. His father was a garment worker.

In high school, Kanowitz would skip class to attend the opera. After graduating at age 15, he earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from City College of New York in 1947. He joined the Army at 18, but World War II ended before he could be sent overseas.


Kanowitz studied comparative literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, and after returning to New York, he hitchhiked with a friend to Los Angeles. He later moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and worked as a longshoreman at a Heinz tomato-processing plant, becoming a labor organizer in the 1950s.

Back problems pushed him to ponder another career. He went to law school at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1960, and furthered his legal studies at the University of Aix-Marseilles in France and Columbia University in New York.

Disliking private practice, he became a law professor at St. Louis University and the University of New Mexico. He taught at Hastings from 1973 to 1991, specializing in labor and contract law in addition to women’s legal rights.

In retirement, he stayed active as an arbitrator, working into his late 70s.


“He was a highly principled person, and he was never afraid to stand up for things he thought were incorrect,” said Joseph Grodin, a Hastings colleague and former California Supreme Court justice.

When Kanowitz stood firm against attempts to establish racial quotas at Hastings in the 1970s, protesters chanted “can, can, Kanowitz,” Grodin recalled.

At 58, Kanowitz began teaching himself Japanese so he could translate a hefty Japanese labor law book into English. He was already fluent in French, German and Yiddish.

“He was a fascinating, curious person who was interested in everything,” Grodin said. “He just had an insatiable, voracious appetite for ideas.”


In addition to Elizabeth, his wife of nearly 60 years, Kanowitz is survived by daughters Toni Gardner of Walnut Creek, Calif., and Carrie Niederer of Sonoma, Calif., three grandsons and two great-grandsons.

Instead of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to the American Diabetes Assn.,, or Sutter VNA and Hospice, 1900 Powell St., Suite 300, Emeryville, CA 94608.