Barbara Nachtrieb was born in San Francisco in 1890, at the beginning of the new wave of growth in the city, which brought with it a new way for women to express themselves. Barbara and her sister and two brothers all attended public schools, where she received an excellent education.
In 1913, she was graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a BA in economics. She excelled in her studies and would have likely been awarded the University Medal, but wasn't because of her gender.
Oh, she was just really a very unusual person: beautiful, as I said, and very bright. As a matter of fact, she told a story: John Simpson, who received the University Medal in the class of 1913, thought he should split it in half for Barbara because she should have had the [honor]. Barbara told me also that some of the professors had said that, but she was a woman so she didn't get it. John Simpson was enamored with her for many years.In 1915, she received a JD from Boalt Hall, the University of California's School of Jurisprudence, where she had been one of only two women in her law school class. That same year, she passed the exam and was admitted to the California Bar. She began practicing law with her classmate, Louise Cleveland, while she also worked as executive secretary for the California Social Insurance Commission. It was here where she first became interested in the legal standing of issues around workmen's compensation and other governmental programs addressing poverty.
In 1917, she enrolled once again at Berkeley, this time to study for her Ph.D. in economics. And in 1919, she made history, when she accepted a joint appointment to the school of law and the department of economics, becoming the first woman in the country to serve as a faculty member at a law school approved by the American Bar Association.
The 1920s were a heady time for Barbara, full of work and advancement as well as personal successes and trials. In 1920, she married Lymon Grimes, while working on her Ph.D, which she received in 1921. In 1922, she gave birth to her daughter, Patricia, whom she adored. In 1923, she was promoted to the position of assistant professor. By 1925, her marriage had soured, and they divorced. The next year, in 1926, she married again, this time to Ian Armstrong. Her second marriage was much more successful, and supportive. Ian helped Barbara by typing her manuscripts and caring for Patricia.
In 1928, she was promoted again, to associate professor, and moved to Boalt Hall full time to teach in the law school. It was during this time where she began to explore the legal issues around poverty and social institutions. She was committed to the ideas of social insurance, and put her attention into studying and teaching family law and labor law. Outside of her university work, she devoted her time to promoting policy to create a minimum insurance against catastrophic economic and personal disaster, seeing it as the most effective way to reduce poverty.
In 1926 and '27, she traveled around Europe, learning about the various social insurance policies in place in different countries. Upon her return to the Berkeley, she began to write and teach in earnest about social insurance as a means to address poverty, the need to create a "living wage," calling for national programs to protect workers, provide health, retirement, disability and life insurance. In 1928, she began teaching an entirely new course, "The Law and Problems of Poverty," focusing on the idea that social change could be addressed through the law. In 1932, she summed up this idea in her first book, Insuring the Essentials:Minimum Wage Program.
Her dual attention to both law and economic policy were very much needed by those in power trying to manage the relief programs created as a response to the Great Depression. Her expertise on the matter landed her an appointment to serve as Chief of Staff for Social Security Planning of the Committee on Economic Security (CES), in 1934. While there, she helped to draft the Social Security Act.
Her tenacious spirit and provocative ideas proved to be something of a problem for the more cautious members of the CES. She ran afoul of both its executive director, Edwin Witte, and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. But strong support from business and the public persuaded the CES to accept a nationally based old-age insurance program that would ultimately be financed on a pay-as-you-go basis. Armstrong is now generally regarded as the architect of the U.S. Social Security program and as a shaper of U.S. unemployment insurance.While serving in Washington, she also continued to teach. In 1935, she was promoted to professor. She continued to work on and publish many important works. Her goal to get universal health insurance on the agenda for the CES may have been thwarted, but she continued to advocate for it through her writing. She published The Health Insurance Doctor: His Role in Great Britain, Denmark and France in 1939. And in 1940, she tried to get universal health insurance in California, but failed again.
(source: Notable American Women)
During World War II, she took a leave from the University so she could head the Rent Enforcement Division of the San Francisco District Office of the U.S. Office of Price Controls, where she was successful in setting up rent regulations in the ever-growing Bay Area.
After the war, she returned to teaching and writing. Her presence on campus was one of vitality and strength. She hosted after teas where students could discuss their studies and other pressing issues. She encouraged an atmosphere of respectful debate and activism in her students, and gave special attention to young women who expressed an interest in a career in the law.
Her two-volume work on California Family Law: Persons and Domestic Relations, the Community Property System, published in 1953 is still considered to be the authority on the subject. In 1955, she was named the A.F. and May Y. Morrison Professor of Law. And although she officially retired in 1957, she continued teaching as a Professor Emeritus until 1965.
Tragically, at the age of 79, she was attacked and beaten, and spent the last years of her life in constant pain. Even then, true to her passion, she used her experience and energy to explore cooperative programs to curb crime. She died at her home in Oakland on January 18, 1967, at the age of eighty-five.
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For more info:
Notable American Women
Berkeley Law Scholarship Repository: The Future of Women Law Professors
The Women's Faculty Club of the University of California at Berkeley: Oral History Transcript and Related Material
A Bibliography of Female Economic Thought up to 1940
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