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Mary Metlay Kaufman papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00300

Scope and Contents

The Mary Metlay Kaufman Papers consist of 34 linear feet of material, dating from 1917 to 1995. The bulk of the papers date from 1946 to 1986 and focus on Kaufman's professional life. Types of materials include trial records and research; correspondence; published and unpublished writings; speeches; conference materials; teaching materials; research and subject files (including notes, drafts, newspaper clippings, articles, and printed materials); and a small amount of photographs and personal memorabilia. Wherever possible, Kaufman's original arrangement and folder titles have been retained.

Major themes that run throughout the collection include international law, the Nuremberg Principles, the Cold War, Communism, political trials in the U.S., the anti-Vietnam War and anti-nuclear movements, U.S. war crimes, and international human rights. Kaufman's papers document her life-long advocacy for the oppressed as well as for others who fought poverty, racism, war crimes, and political repression. The wide range of social causes in which she was involved illuminates connections between the Old Left, especially labor reform and C.P.U.S.A. activities, and the New Left's Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.

The papers also document Kaufman's close associations with other prominent civil rights attorneys and the activities of the National Lawyers' Guild, as well as her involvement in other progressive organizations and in several international war crimes tribunals. Kaufman's research and writings reveal her development and use of what she referred to as the "Nuremberg defense" for those arrested in civil disobedience actions protesting war crimes.

Kaufman's papers reflect her personal battle as a woman attorney, having begun her legal career in the late 1930s. She often had to fight not only the prosecution, but also her own male colleagues for inclusion on defense teams. The financial struggles she had as a single mother are also apparent, in correspondence with clients regarding payment for her services for which she often received little or no compensation.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1917 - 1995
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1946-1986


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use with the following restrictions on access:

At the direction of the donor, this collection is available for research use with the condition that researchers must sign an access agreement prior to use agreeing not to identify any clients represented by Mary Kaufman who are still living without their written permission.. Please consult with special collections staff at to begin this process.

The file on Grossman v. Joan Baez is closed until Baez's death.

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that he owns copyright, Michael Kaufman has retained copyright in Mary Kaufman's works donated to Smith College. Copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For those few instances beyond fair use, or which may regard materials in the collection not created by Mary Kaufman, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Mary Metlay was born November 9, 1912 in Atlanta, Georgia, the daughter of Nathan and Etta (Kirschner) Metlay who had emigrated from Russia. In 1917, the Metlay family moved to Brooklyn, New York. Kaufman described her family's influence on her social consciousness and activism:

"From early childhood, I was very much attuned to the problems of the poor. Poverty was my economic level up until the time I finished law school. My mother led a rent strike during the early days...on the East Side, and I also participated in things like that and the monumental hunger marches and organization of the unemployed in the 1930s.... The other thing that influenced me greatly since childhood was the fact that in my family women did not play a secondary role.... So that although I grew up in a society where women were generally oppressed, I didn't have to battle my personal environment." (Marlise James, The People's Lawyers, 1973)

Kaufman attended James Madison High School and earned her bachelor's degree in Political Science from Brooklyn College in 1932. For the next four years she studied for her law degree, attending night classes at St. John's University Law School while working for the Remedial Reading Program of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). After being admitted to the New York bar in 1937, she continued her organizing work with WPA legal projects and was involved in the Lawyers' Security League, an organization of lawyers working with the WPA. During this time she also worked for labor lawyer, Frank Scheiner, "representing parties at conferences before the New York State and National Labor Relations Board." She was one of the original members of the progressive National Lawyers' Guild, founded in 1937, and was active on both the national level and in the New York City Chapter into the 1970s.

In 1940, Kaufman moved to Washington, D.C. to work for the National Labor Relations Board as a Review Attorney, analyzing transcripts of hearings, reporting findings to the Board, and writing decisions. That same year she married Frederick Kaufman and a year later returned to New York to raise their son Michael, born September 1941. In 1944 Kaufman moved back to Washington with her son to work for the National War Labor Board, and then the National Wage Stabilization Board until 1947. She and her husband were separated in 1946 and eventually divorced in 1952.

From 1947 to 1948, Kaufman served on the prosecution team of the U.S. Military Tribunal in Nuremburg, Germany, in the case against the international chemical cartel, I.G. Farben (United States v. Krauch). I.G. Farben was a financial supporter of the Nazi regime, and was charged with pillaging the chemical industries of occupied Europe; using slave labor; and manufacturing the gas used in the Nazi death camps. Members of the Board of Directors were charged with crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity - the three categories of war crimes defined at Nuremberg. But cold war politics meant that there was little support for giving them more than light sentences.

Kaufman returned to the U.S. in 1948 in the midst of the domestic cold war. As she later told an interviewer, it was "an atmosphere I hadn't watched develop and was appalled by it. I had been living in the past of the Nazi's rise to power - a rise which began with the elimination of the Communists and the use of anti-communism as a pretext for suspending the constitutional guarantees of the people - and came back to see what appeared to me to be the same development taking place in this country." (James, p. 91) Upon her return she established her private practice in New York City and began her life-long work as a defender of civil liberties and constitutional rights. From 1948 into the early 1960s, her legal work consisted primarily of defending leaders of the Communist Party of the United States (C.P.U.S.A.) who were indicted under the Smith Act in New York, Denver, and St. Louis. During this period she also represented individuals before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB).

1966 was a turning point in Kaufman's career: "At that time I decided to take stock and consider where to go next. I was terribly troubled by the racism in our society and the war in Vietnam. I spent a long time researching and reviewing the Nuremberg war crimes trials. I was overwhelmed by the similarity of the patterns of the Nazis with our own.... I wrote on the subject. I then traveled to Europe, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic to lecture and to study their legal systems.... When I came back the protests against war, racism and poverty were in full bloom." (James, p. 93-94)

In December 1967, during "Stop the Draft week" hundreds of war protestors were arrested in New York City and the National Lawyers' Guild set up the Mass Defense Committee, chaired by Kaufman, to defend them. It was the first time the Guild was to undertake direct representation of people arrested in political actions. In April 1968, when over a thousand people were arrested during the Columbia University strike, parents of students arrested helped to raise enough money to set up the Mass Defense Office. Kaufman directed the office from 1968 to 1971, supervising over 200 volunteer lawyers, law students, activists, and legal workers, and directing the defense of thousands arrested protesting for civil rights and peace.

Kaufman's development of the theory of the use of the Nuremburg Principles (particularly the principle of individual responsibility) was a guiding force in her defense of political activists. Over the next two decades she researched, spoke, and wrote on the subject of defending civil disobedience in the face of U.S. war crimes against peace and humanity. Kaufman was a legal advisor in the "Hickam 3" case of anti-Vietnam War protestors in Hawaii in 1972. From 1977 to 1983, she testified in a series of civil disobedience cases in defense of protestors of the Trident nuclear submarine based in Bangor, Washington, and she participated in several international tribunals from 1967 to 1984, investigating U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia; the use of atomic weapons against Japan; and the nuclear arms race.

In 1972, Mary Kaufman was hired as a visiting Professor to direct the Undergraduate Legal Studies Program at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She taught courses in McCarthyism; labor law; Nuremberg and international law; racism and the law; and political trials of the 20th Century. After leaving Antioch, Kaufman was hired as a Visiting Professor of Law at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, from 1975 to 1976 and she delivered the Commencement Address there in 1976.

Kaufman retired from legal casework by 1980, but continued to speak and write on issues such as peace and nuclear disarmament, civil rights, and political freedom. She died in New York City in 1995.


36.69 linear feet (94 containers)


Lawyer, professor, and political activist. Major themes reflected in the papers include international law, anti-communism, civil rights, the anti-Vietnam war and anti-nuclear movements. The papers also document Kaufman's close associations with other prominent civil rights attorneys and her involvement in international war crimes tribunals. Material includes trial records and research; correspondence; published and unpublished writings; speeches; and teaching materials.


This collection is organized into eight series:

  1. I. Biographical Material
  2. II. Correspondence
  3. III. Legal Practice
  4. IV. Teaching
  5. V. Organizations and Conferences
  6. VI. Writings
  7. VII. Speeches
  8. VIII. Research and Subject Files

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Mary Kaufman donated her papers to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1995. Additional papers were given by her son, Michael Kaufman, after her death.

Her FBI file was received in 2001 via a FOIA request, most likely made by the Sophia Smith Collection.

Additional Formats

Selections from the Mary Kaufman Papers can be viewed in the Web exhibit Agents of Social Change: New Resources on 20th-century Women's Activism .

Related Material

Researchers may also want to see the complete transcript of the U.S. Military Tribunal in the case against I.G. Farben (United States v. Krauch), Nuremberg, Germany, 1947-48, consisting of 121 volumes. In addition to the transcript, there are several volumes of opinions on other Nuremberg war crimes cases that were tried by the U.S. All of these volumes were transferred to the Yale University Law Library in February 2001.


For additional biographical information on Mary Kaufman see:
Ginger, Ann Fagan (ed.), "War Crimes and Cold War Conspiracies," The Relevant Lawyers: Conversations Out of Court on Their Clients, Their Practice, Their Politics, Their Life Style. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972, pp. 184-215.
James, Marlise. The People's Lawyers. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1973, pp. 88-97.
Jessup, Margaret. "Mary Metlay Kaufman (1912-1995)" in Great American Lawyers: An Encyclopedia . John R. Vile, ed., Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2001.
"The Best Offense is a Mass Defense": Annual Dinner of the National Lawyers Guild/NYC Chapter (program), March 8, 1996, including tributes to Mary Kaufman by Bruce Bentley, Tim Coulter, Dan Myers, Gustin Reichbach, Ollie Rosengart, and Elliott Wilk.
Sobel, Robert. "A Woman of Conviction and Compassion," Guild Notes, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Fall 1995, p. 36-37.
Voices of Feminism Oral History Project: Margery Nelson interview.
Obituaries appear in The New York Times, September 11, 1995; and The Washington Post, September 12, 1995.

Processing Information

Processed by Margaret Jessup, 1999.

Finding Aid to the Mary Metlay Kaufman papers
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Margaret Jessup
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss34 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:16-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2019-07-10: Added paper finding aid pencil edits
  • 2020-08-07: Added/updated 11 flat file folders, updated dates
  • 2022-03-04: Integrated description of oversized materials.

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063