Alice Philipson, a scrappy, pioneering civil rights impact litigator who liked to boast that she was “the legal equivalent of dynamite,” died peacefully and surrounded by love, July 14, 2022, in her Berkeley, California home. She was 74.
We can’t believe that Alice didn’t write her own obituary before she died! It’s nice to know she trusted us with the task of trying to eulogize someone who lived such an outsized life. Alice was unique, and although she at some point annoyed almost everyone with whom she came in contact, all of us agree that she was a hilarious, generous, loyal, powerful, complex, intense, brilliant human, as well as a deeply committed and creative lawyer with an absolute intolerance of injustice and ignorance.
Alice was born Nov. 20, 1947, in Pasadena, California, to Amy Goldstein and Joseph Philipson. Alice attended the American School in Paris, Pasadena High School, and Pitzer College before earning her law degree from Golden Gate University in 1981. She lived in Berkeley since the late 1960s.
Alice was a woman of her time. She married her high school sweetheart at the dawn of the sexual revolution. The movement carried her out of her traditional heterosexual relationship, to a place of sexual liberation — where she belonged and thrived as an out lesbian. She met Petra Liljestrand in 1976, finally finding someone who shared her values and would put up with her. Alice loved Petra deeply, and the two were together for 46 years. Alice and Petra were one of the first lesbian couples to have a child — the amazing Maya —via donor insemination. Later Petra, Alice, and Maya appeared in a Newsweek magazine cover story about lesbians with children, making their own lives transparent to support a future where queer families would no longer be newsworthy.
Early in her career, Alice worked as a social worker and drug abuse counselor. But no work satisfied her brilliant intellect and absolute commitment to social justice as did the law. Alice was the quintessential activist lawyer, who didn’t take a case unless it mattered, and who gave away her time and expertise with abandon. During the AIDS epidemic’s worst years, Alice advocated for people with HIV, litigating cases to ensure medical treatment, protect against work discrimination, obtain and honor insurance coverage, and protect personal health information. She was one of the original volunteer attorneys who established the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, which provided no-cost legal services to people living with HIV, a struggle and an organization that continues. Alice also provided legal advice to women with cancer through the Women’s Cancer Resource Center, and was an early member of the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ “brain trust.” In 1998, Alice convinced California courts for the first time to give legal standing to lesbian parents in guardianship and child custody cases, a huge advance for all lesbian mothers in the state. As Out magazine wrote, “Philipson blasted open California’s courthouse door for lesbian families.” She was also instrumental in getting the State to change birth certificates from ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to ‘parent’ and ‘parent’. Alice always reached for the outer edge of what was possible in the law — and when she didn’t like it, she used her brilliant and creative legal mind to move that edge farther out. She was a fierce advocate for her clients and for equality.
In 1997 Alice was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she fought cancer for years. Her illness experience transformed and deepened her relationships and knitted together a caring network of friends, family, and colleagues. Having been slapped in the face with her own mortality, Alice began to integrate her childhood love of horses into her life: Her last two decades were populated with fast friendships with equally obsessive “barn girls,” with whom she shared many peaceful and restorative rides on East Bay wilderness trails.
Philipson is survived by her spouse, Petra Liljestrand, a retired health researcher; their daughter, Maya Philipson; Rachel Robasciotti, whom Alice considered a second daughter; siblings David, Robert, Zeeb, Åsa, and Jerker; beloved nephews, nieces and cousins; extended family in the U.S., Sweden, Norway, Australia, and Japan; and a wide circle of friends, colleagues, and allies. We will all miss her deeply.
In lieu of flowers or gifts, please make a donation in Alice’s name to the National Network of Abortion Funds. A memorial service will be scheduled for September.