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Professor’s award-winning book brings human rights home

Before Martha Davis became Northeastern Law’s premier on human rights law, she was a corporate lawyer on Wall Street.

While working for Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, she discovered her calling to legal service for poor, underserved women unable to navigate the legal system.

“The firm had a community legal services office in Hell’s Kitchen, and it was while working for them that I discovered the real turning point in my career,” she said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to work with poverty law cases.”

She turned that interest into a career path that led her to the National Organization for Women, as vice president and legal director, and to Northeastern University five years ago. She has taught on a wide range of subjects, from women and the law to immigration and employment discrimination, and prior to arriving here, has litigated cases before the US Supreme Court.

Asked to consider what knits her work and experiences together, just as her latest three-volume book “Bringing Human Rights Home” picks up a major award from the Myers Center, Davis reflects on the words of FDR and the creation of The New Deal.

“FDR articulated concepts, and the one that really resonates with me is ‘freedom from want.’ I would say that this concept, and the idea that we all deserve social and economic rights, to things like health care, and paid family leave, are ideals that motivate me.”

It is only in recent years that attorneys like Davis began framing issues related to poverty and civil rights around the concept of human rights, a definition that has aided proponents of human rights gain legal ground, she said.

In “Bringing Human Rights Home,” Davis and coeditors Cynthia Soohoo and Catherine Albisa, examine the political forces and historic events in the United States’ “failure to embrace human rights principles at home while actively (albeit selectively) championing and promoting human rights abroad,” according to a press release.

Davis’ volume focuses on the history of human rights in the United States, from the 1920s through the 1970s. The book recently won an Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America.

“Our goal in developing this work was to demonstrate that the concept of human rights is not ‘foreign,’ but is an important part of our nation’s heritage that demands attention, Davis said.

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