Former state Representative Babette Josephs passed on Friday at the age of 81. While she is best known for her 28-year career in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Rep. Josephs was also a committed activist and public interest lawyer. She served on ACLU-PA’s state board of directors and the board of our Philadelphia chapter, and she also was the founding executive director of Pennsylvania’s NARAL chapter and a co-founder of the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project, which later merged with ACLU-PA. In the 1970s, she was one of three lawyers who established an all-woman law firm in Center City Philadelphia, which took on many clients referred to them by various feminist public-interest organizations, as told in this remembrance published in Hidden City in May.
In the state Legislature, Rep. Josephs served as the chair of the House State Government Committee, where she advocated for numerous civil liberties issues, including voting rights and expanding nondiscrimination law to include LGBQ&T people. In 2009, she shepherded the first successful committee vote on adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. That same year, she introduced legislation to allow voters to vote by mail without an excuse, an idea that ultimately came to fruition in 2019. In the 1990s, she was one of the leading advocates in the House pushing for privacy protections for people living with HIV.
ACLU-PA staff and board members shared their reflections about Babette after hearing the news of her passing.
Peter Goldberger, president, ACLU-PA: “For more than 25 years, Babette was Philadelphia's (and all Pennsylvanians') progressive champion in the state Legislature.
“An example of Babette's stalwart commitment to principle (unique among politicians, I think I can say without exaggeration) is that she cast the lone vote in the General Assembly against patently unconstitutional legislation requiring all schoolchildren in PA to recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily. You will not be surprised to learn (or be reminded) that ACLU-PA prevailed in federal court striking down that law as unconstitutional, a decision the state did not even appeal. In short, she was the only member of the Legislature in the entire state to honor her oath of office in voting against that bill.
“Rest in Power, Babette.”
Lois Hagarty, president, ACLU-PA’s Greater Philadelphia chapter: “Babette and I served in the Pennsylvania Legislature together for nine years. Although we were on opposite sides of the aisle, Babette was a fierce advocate, and we agreed on many things. We both stood to speak against a bill limiting reproductive rights, and, as the first one of us spoke, Speaker Leroy Irvis gaveled the chamber to be quiet and said words to the effect of, ‘You may want to listen as these women know something about this.’
“I was privileged to join Babette on the Philadelphia board of the ACLU and become friends with her – a passionate fighter for justice.”
Ronda Goldfein, executive director, AIDS Law Project of PA: “Several years ago, Babette and I found ourselves shopping at a Philly store that specializes in overpriced athletic wear, when an earnest sales clerk remarked that Babette’s pants were flattering. This set Babette off on an impromptu floor speech about breaking the chains of appearance. At 79, she informed the clerk, neither she nor her clothes had to be flattering. Her speech won applause from the customers and staff — including the clerk!
“Babette's fire was stoked over decades of doing the right thing. She was among the early champions of people living with HIV. She recognized that unless their privacy was protected, they would not come forward to get tested and treated. She introduced an HIV confidentiality bill that prevented health care and social service providers from disclosing that patients and clients were living with HIV. At the AIDS Law Project, we regularly cite the law (commonly known as Act 148/Act 59) to encourage people to get treatment, while assuring them that their privacy is safe -- thanks to Babette.”
Andy Hoover, director of communications, former legislative director, ACLU-PA: “When I became legislative director in 2008, I inherited a lot of relationships from my predecessor, Larry Frankel, and one of the most valuable was with Babette. Her capitol office was our hangout - and escape - and it was a great place for me, as a new lobbyist, to learn about the legislative process, pick up gossip, and hear Babette’s insights on what was going on in the Legislature. I only worked with her in the last five years of her legislative career, but what I learned in that time from her was invaluable and guided my work in the capitol.
“Babette was always quick with a quip. When someone asked her why she, as the state rep from Center City Philadelphia, was on the agriculture committee, she said, ‘I like to eat.’ She also did not put up with anyone’s shit, which was a necessary quality in a body that is so lacking in women legislators. Babette may be gone, but her legacy lives on in everyone who knew her and learned from her.”
Paula Harris, vice president, ACLU-PA: “About 15-20 years ago, clinic escorts from Pittsburgh drove to Philadelphia to provide escort training to a clinic. Our trip was under the auspices of the Women's Law Project. Sue Frietsche, a lawyer at WLP and a former legislative staff for the ACLU, arranged for us to stay at Babette's home; she was in Harrisburg at the time. It was a generous gesture, and it wasn't until many years later that I finally met her as a fellow board member of the ACLU-PA and thanked her for her kindness and generosity. She, of course, had no memory of it but was not surprised and hoped that we were comfortable. A very gracious lady.”
Karl Baker, board of directors, ACLU-PA: “Babette was a tough cookie whom I soon came to appreciate after she entered Rutgers Camden Law School one year after me. We had put together an active coalition of Black law students, women, Lawyers Guild folks, and hippies and had held out an open invitation to our LGBT brothers and sisters. Babette was a former teacher with a strong voice among the women. I was not surprised when she later entered politics. There were many times when she shared her office in Harrisburg with board members who came up to lobby. Of course, Babette's office was the office for our ACLU lobbying staff. She was also a constant presence at Philadelphia board meetings when she was not in Harrisburg. She was greatly missed when she moved from Philadelphia. She is still greatly missed.”
Michael Louik, past president, ACLU-PA: “I always loved seeing and hearing Babette in action with her ACLU hat on. She was and will always be an inspiration.”
Nancy Gellman, board member, ACLU-PA Greater Philadelphia chapter: “I live in Babette’s neighborhood and would run into her walking her dog from time to time. We would have interesting chats about current events, particularly civil liberties issues. At Philadelphia board meetings, she provided important insights into what was happening in the PA Legislature and elsewhere. She was a champion of civil liberties, a dedicated ACLU board member, and a friend who will be missed.”
Arthur Kaplan, board of directors, ACLU-PA: “Babette was a long time friend to the LGBTQ community. In the state Legislature, she was one of the earliest advocates for LGBTQ equality. On a personal level, Babette was a close friend to Larry Frankel, the ACLU of PA's long-time legislative director, and to his husband Andy Chirls and was a personal friend of many other LGBTQ people, including me and my husband.
“Her warmth and animated presence lit up a room. She will be missed by her many friends."