Rosalie Davies, an attorney who spent decades fighting for the rights of lesbian mothers, died July 14 at Roxborough Memorial Hospital after suffering a massive stroke. She was 70.
Davies was born Jan. 22, 1939, in London, England, and moved to Montreal with her husband in the 1950s. She gave birth to two children, a boy and a girl, and the family moved to Philadelphia in the late ’60s.
Davies and her husband separated shortly after the move, when she acknowledged that she was a lesbian. Although the pair had joint custody of their children after their split, when her ex-husband remarried and announced he was moving back to Canada in 1973, a court granted him full custody. Davies told reporters at the time that her status as an open lesbian factored heavily into the court decision and that she felt like her “sexuality was on trial, like an ancient witchcraft trial.”
Davies was allowed one phone call a week to the children and one in-person visit a month, as well as two weeks of supervised visitation at her parents’ home in Canada in the summer.
After one year of this arrangement, however, the children asked to return to live with their mother in Philadelphia, which their father permitted.
Although Davies was able to raise her children, she knew that many other lesbian mothers were not as fortunate and decided to do all she could to assist.
She attained her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and, in 1979, earned her law degree from Temple University.
Ahavia Lavana, a longtime friend, said Davies’ custody battle was one of the primary motivating factors for her decision to become an attorney.
“She went to law school because she lost her children in court just because she was a lesbian, and she was determined to not let this happen to any other women,” Lavana said.
Davies founded Custody Action for Lesbian Mothers in 1974 and, over the next 25 years, the organization provided free legal services to countless women fighting for the right to be a part of their children’s lives.
Lavana said that she lost custody of her own two sons when she came out as a lesbian, and a guidance counselor at her kids’ school suggested she seek legal assistance from CALM.
Davies took her case and was influential in creating a custody agreement in which Lavana gained custody of her youngest son.
“I got him back through Rosalie’s help; I don’t think I could have without her,” she said.
Lavana said that during a memorial service for Davies last weekend, she spoke with “so many women who said that Rosalie literally saved their children’s lives. It was amazing, but that really is what she did.”
Davies and her late partner Minna Weinstein, who died last year, later adopted their own child in the 1980s.
Although Davies was motivated to enter the legal field because of her battle for her children, Lavana said she found that she had a real talent for the practice.
“I spent time with her sitting in the courtrooms and she would just enchant juries,” Lavana said. “They just loved to hear her talk. She was like a little Mary Poppins, talking in her British accent, a very proper British accent. And she’d tell the jury why she thought something made sense and they’d go, ‘Oh, yes, you’re right. Just keep talking.’”
Davies made national headlines in the late ’90s when she represented a local woman whose ex-husband was refusing to pay her alimony since she cheated on him with a woman. Davies utilized the argument that her client’s action could not actually be considered adultery, grounds for the denial of alimony, since the definition of adultery typically involves sexual intercourse, which connotes penal penetration.
PGN contributor Victoria Brownworth, who was 15 when she met Davies through her work with RadicalLesbians, an activism group Davies founded in the ’70s, said her legal prowess carried over into her personal life.
“Rosalie was a very strong woman,” Brownworth said. “She had a very forceful personality. If she liked you, she adored you, and if she didn’t like you, she just wouldn’t speak to you.”
Brownworth noted that many of the lesbian custody cases Davies spearheaded established case law and that Davies handled numerous cases involving lesbian mothers who split from their female partners, an issue that later became central to such national groups as National Center for Lesbian Rights.
In addition to spearheading cases for lesbian mothers, Davies also was an advocate for transgender rights, took part in anti-war demonstrations and was a member of lesbian activism group Dyketactics and the Homophile Action League. During her time at Penn, she was influential in student-organizing efforts that led to the creation of the Women’s Studies Program and Women’s Center at the school. She later taught a course in cultural feminism at the university.
Davies is survived by her son Adrian Buck, daughters Caroline Hodson and Althea Weinstein and four grandchildren.
A memorial service for Davies will be held from 3-5 p.m. Aug. 29 at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St.
Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].