A Pioneer for Women’s Rights: Lawyer Sybil Shainwald and Her Love of the Law and the Hamptons

lawyer Sybil Shainwald
Sybil Shainwald

Many high-profile advocates for women’s rights in recent years have used their social media platforms to spur a movement decrying sexism, violence and discrimination that has resulted in proper social awareness. But there are pioneers of women’s rights who had blazed that trail and fought for women’s rights long before it was socially accepted.

Legendary women’s health lawyer Sybil Shainwald has been celebrated repeatedly, and her accomplishments have made an indelible mark in the world of women’s health rights. It was a long road for Shainwald. She began her career when it wasn’t popular for women to be in the legal field. As a result, she was discriminated against, including not being admitted to Columbia School of Law because of her gender.

“I was a history major but wanted to take law classes,” remembers Shainwald. “But I wasn’t the right gender.”

But Shainwald has always been tenacious, and she forged ahead and completed law school in her 40s.

“They wound up giving me a big award eventually,” Shainwald says with a laugh.

Shainwald spoke to us from her home in Southampton. A lifelong resident of New York City, she has been coming to the East End since the 1970s. “My husband used to say, when we turned into our driveway, ‘Welcome to paradise.’”

Although her husband, accountant to the stars Sidney Shainwald passed away in 2003, Shainwald has continued to come to Southampton. It has always been a perfect respite from the intensely personal and essential legal work she performed for many years.

In her first position, she was the only female lawyer. Her work was limited to cases with women, and she began to do a lot of research on diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic, non-steroidal form of estrogen that caused health issues in many women.

In her first case, her client was offered $100,000 to settle.

“She was young, and she needed the money, and that was a lot of money,” says Shainwald. “But she trusted me, and we let a jury decide—and she was awarded $500,000. But it was more than a financial victory. It was a victory for women.”

Now, close to 50 years later, Shainwald is still in regular contact with her client.

“She’s an amazing woman,” Shainwald says.

She began to gain a reputation as a champion for women in cases against pharmaceutical companies, eventually representing women from Nairobi, Kenya, England, Holland and the United States.

One of her most significant success stories was the Revival Statute, which addressed the statute of limitations on the filing of civil cases. It was a watershed decision that took years of court and legislative battles.

Shainwald is no stranger to the spotlight, either. She has appeared on every major TV network and has been quoted as an expert in publications and other media worldwide. She has frequently lectured throughout her career on obstetrical malpractice, IUDs, unnecessary hysterectomies, hormone therapy and products liability litigation.

She is also a voracious reader and has authored many papers and essays related to her experience and her profession. Shainwald loves the nonfiction genre. Her most recent reads: The Obama books.

Shainwald has the respect of the legal world.

“Sybil Shainwald’s compassion and professional skills have ennobled the practice of law.” These words by U.S. District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein, before whom Shainwald appeared hundreds of times, encapsulate her life and career.

She says the Hamptons have undergone major changes since she and her family began to seek their solace on the East End. She has spent almost all of her time in Southampton during the COVID-19 pandemic. She has continued to enjoy her
time.

“So many restaurants have come and gone,” she says. “A lot of things are different.”

Her favorite restaurant now? “The American Hotel,” she answers, without skipping a beat. “I love it there.”

Despite the increase in people and traffic, Shainwald still loves Southampton and the East End.

“The ocean, the beach, the town, it is a fantastic place,” says Shainwald. “It is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.

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