Tamar Frankel served in a Jewish defense paramilitary unit before Israeli statehood, with assignments, she says, from an aborted bridge bombing to illicit radio broadcasts. Having survived such derring-do, the sexist blowback she got as the School of Law’s first woman professor 50 years ago seemed more pesky hot air to her than a confidence-rattling gale.
It was 1968, and LAW’s new professor was shuffled off to a basement office in the school library. Her reaction? “It was perfect,” she says. “I didn’t have to put the books back” after using them. The quiet also helped her complete her doctoral thesis on variable annuities for Harvard Law School. But despite her thick skin, it was irksome when one male colleague described women as average achievers with “no spark of insight or brilliance.” Another, she learned years later, deemed her hiring a mistake.
What a difference living to 93 makes. (Frankel’s birthday is tomorrow, when she’ll “retire” from the faculty, although retirement is relative with this human perpetual motion machine. She’ll continue researching, writing, and teaching as an adjunct in the fall.) During her nine decades-plus, she has seen not only the creation of the state of Israel that she’d hoped for, but the welcome mat rolled out for her gender at LAW: there are now a dozen tenured women on the faculty, plus two others on the tenure track. The current dean and the incoming dean are women.
As for that “mistake” of a hire, longevity has brought Frankel widespread recognition as a pioneering expert on financial regulation and fiduciary obligations.
“The 92-Year-Old Woman Who Is Still Shaking Up Wall Street,” the Wall Street Journal called her last year. Said shaking involves Frankel’s four-decades-and-counting advocacy of the fiduciary rule, requiring retirement investment advisors to act in their clients’ best interests, which was finally codified by President Obama.
The Trump administration has put aspects of that seeming no-brainer on hold. But Frankel isn’t losing sleep over the possible undoing of her life’s work. “I don’t think it will go that far,” she says. “There is quite a bit of a backlash.”
Frankel commutes to BU by taxi or getting a lift; she stopped driving herself about five years ago, after another driver rear-ended her car. Married and with two children, she shies away from discussing her private life; having soldiered through sexist artillery early on to plant her flag as financial law expert, her passion (aside from her seven grandchildren, whose names she’ll proudly tell you) is her work.
“She is a giant in the field,” says Maureen O’Rourke, current LAW dean. “Tamar has for years been the go-to person on mutual fund regulation, securitization, and fiduciary law.” It was not always so, she notes: Frankel “had the audacity to enter the male-dominated field of corporate law and soon outstripped colleagues of all genders in terms of prominence.”
O’Rourke feels a personal debt to Frankel, who with other women pioneers “paved the way for people like me, for whom it has been so very much easier” to enter the law and legal education.
Indeed, by the time Kathryn Kleiman (LAW’93) took Corporations 1 with Frankel, her teacher was a nationally recognized expert on mutual funds and fiduciary matters.
“It was the way she balanced being a senior professor…and a national and international leader and advisor that showed me that these legal and policy paths were possible for women and lawyers,” says Kleiman, who turned to her former professor after graduation for help with a globally crucial professional task: creating the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the nonprofit managing the worldwide domain name system.
Helping set up ICANN 20 years ago, Kleiman applied principles of fiduciary duty she’d learned from Frankel, “running the internet for the benefit of the world.” Frankel “actually joined us and took an important leading role in designing ICANN,” Kleiman says, calling both her mentor’s courses and her collaboration on the internet work “pivotal in my career.”
Jennifer Clarke (LAW’93) entered securities law after studying the subject under Frankel, and in her first year of practice, she ran an analysis of a legal point made by her old teacher. Not only was the partner she was working with satisfied with the analysis, Clarke recalls, but “he was impressed that the first-year associate had access to Tamar. Her fundamental principles…still guide my thinking on a daily basis: Whom is the regulation trying to protect? From what risk?”
Developing steely stoicism as member of Haganah
Born in British-controlled Palestine in 1925 to a German father and a Russian mother, Frankel at age 14 joined the Haganah (“defense” in Hebrew), the Zionist paramilitary that defended Jewish settlements against Arabs in the years before Israeli statehood.
“I was brought up with the idea that the Jews need a place that is their own,” she says. “On the other hand, we were friendly with the Bedouins and the Arabs.” She studied Hebrew, Arabic, and English in school, “but Hebrew was the anchor.” Haganah was strictly defensive, she says—“We are not going to attack, but God help those who try to attack us.” But, as the group was banned by the British, membership was risky.
She studied how to shoot a gun and toss a grenade. “I’m lucky. I didn’t kill anyone. And I consider it lucky. But if I had to, I would probably have done it.” One story in her as-yet-unpublished memoir recounts how she was part of a group that put a bomb under a bridge (she and another woman accompanied the two male bombers to make it appear like just a social evening out). The next day, “we were told to take it out. It transpired that other people, people who have nothing to do with the fight, were using the bridge, and we didn’t want to kill others.”
Resentful and despite the risk of discovery, she returned with the team, which removed the bomb. In retrospect, she says, “I think it was a very good lesson that stuck with me—that I’d rather put myself in risk than kill innocents.”
She also participated in illegal radio broadcasts, airing information the British censored about the state of the struggle in various parts of Palestine. These exploits helped forge her steely stoicism later when facing the sexism of BU male colleagues, she says.
“You want to do…what you want to do, more than caring what others think about you. I wanted to teach. I wanted to write. I didn’t want to be part of the group.…I loved what I was doing, and being approved of was not the lifeline.”
Her love of law came in part from her father, who was the first president of Israel’s bar association. She apprenticed at his firm (inheriting it when he died in 1951) and served as the first general counsel of the fledgling Israeli Air Force. In 1963, she came to the United States and Harvard Law School, where she earned a doctorate in juridical science, the school’s most advanced law degree. Five years later, while working on her dissertation (on variable annuities), she joined LAW.
When the Washington-based nonprofit Institute for the Fiduciary Standard created the Tamar Frankel Fiduciary Prize in 2013, recognizing important advocates of fiduciary principles, Brooksley Born, former chair of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, declared, “No one embodies those principles better.”
Born added, in what could be a retirement farewell if Frankel were ever to really retire: “Almost 50 years of law school graduates—many of them now leading lawyers, judges, academicians, and government officials—have benefited from her wisdom and guidance.”