Eleanor Bontecou

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Eleanor Bontecou (1891-1976) was a lawyer, civil rights advocate, law professor, and government official. Bontecou served as an attorney and investigator for both the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. War Department. She also worked as a professor at two universities. During her career, Bontecou achieved national notoriety for her work in the civil liberties and women's rights movements.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Bontecou was born in Short Hills, New Jersey, a community in Millburn Township, New Jersey.[1] She graduated from the Beard School (now Morristown-Beard School) in Orange, New Jersey. Bontecou then completed her bachelor's degree at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania in 1913. During her time at Bryn Mawr, she earned the Brooke Hall Memorial Scholarship [2] and the Bryn Mawr European Scholarship.[3] After Bonctecou earned her law degree from New York University in 1917,[2] she continued to study law under Felix Frankfurter at Harvard University.

Career in academia[edit]

In 1922, Bontecou returned to Bryn Mawr as its Acting Dean. She received her Ph.D. from the Brookings Graduate School of Economics and Government (now the Brookings Institution) in 1928. Bonctecou then briefly worked as a professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago until contracting encephalitis lethargica.[1] The long-term illness led her to spend most of the 1930s bedridden. Although Bonctecou eventually attained better health, she experienced lingering lifelong effects, including a tremor in her hands and hampered balance.[4]

Civil rights and war crimes investigations[edit]

In 1943, Bontecou joined the Civil Rights Section in the Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. She served as one of the first seven attorneys at the agency, the precursor to the Civil Rights Division. After conducting a comprehensive study of how the U.S. and its allies treated conscientious objectors in World War I, Bontecou made recommendations for treatment of conscientious objectors in World War II. Moving to the War Department (now the Department of Defense) in 1946, she assisted preparation for the prosecution of major war criminals from the Pacific Theatre of World War II. In 1947, Bontecou visited Nuremberg to investigate and report on war crimes that took place in Germany. During her retirement, she helped victims of unfounded accusations made during the McCarthy era.[4]

Advocacy to end poll taxes[edit]

Bontecou gave legal advice to the Southern Conference for Human Welfare to assist its campaign to end poll taxes for black American voters. She also collaborated with political scientist Ralph Bunche on a survey of southern suffrage for the New School for Social Research (now the New School) and the Carnegie Foundation. The study found an association between low wages paid to black Americans and their difficulty paying poll taxes. This hardship factored into decreased participation in voting.[5]

Honors and legacy[edit]

A law professorship at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey carries Bontecou's name. In 2011, the Virginia Women in History Project at the Library of Virginia honored her. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum houses Bontecou's papers.


  • The Poll Tax (1942)
  • Freedom in the Balance: Opinions of Judge Henry W. Edgerton Relating to Civil Liberties (1960)
  • The Federal loyalty-security program (1974)


  1. ^ a b c "Eleanor Bontecou, Lawyer, Educator". The Washington Post. 25 March 1976. 
  2. ^ a b Bryn Mawr College, ed. (1917). Register of Alumnae and Former Students. 
  3. ^ "Bryn Mawr Announces the Award of Its Principal Academic Honors, the Four European Fellowships". The New York Times. 6 April 1913. 
  4. ^ a b Virginia Women in History 2011
  5. ^ Reed, Linda (1991). Simple Decency & Common Sense: The Southern Conference Movement.