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Defending Freedom

Controlled chaos. That’s how Laura Murphy describes her job as director of the Washington Legislative Office for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she oversees a team of lobbyists, researchers and administrative staff responsible for advancing the ACLU’s public policy priorities on a wide variety of issues.

For every victory there are even more defeats, but Mrs. Murphy credits her optimism and perspective for being able to deal with them. “Defeat is part of the job,” she says. “It took 100 years for women to earn the right to vote. We’re just itty-bitty dots in the making of history.”

It’s easy to see where her drive comes from. Her parents were community and political leaders in Baltimore whose lives were dedicated to mobilizing black voters and reversing segregation laws. In her immediate family alone, she can count 14 runs for public office. “When my parents couldn’t find a sitter but had to campaign, I would tag along,” Mrs. Murphy says. “I took part in countless dinnertime debates about what it meant to be free and equal.”

Meanwhile, her journalist uncle, George Murphy, encouraged her to read The New York Times when she was 9. “Every time he visited, he would want to know what I thought about the news,” she recalls. “He was a huge influence on my life.”

By the time she was a young teen, she and her brother were the ones doing the campaigning, and at the age of 15, she started her own organization to register voters and get out the vote. After graduating from Wellesley College, Mrs. Murphy became one of the youngest legislative assistants on Capitol Hill, working first for U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell, the first black congressman from Maryland, and then for U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York. From there, she was recruited by the ACLU to be a lobbyist on civil and women’s rights.

The pressures of the job make her spare time scarce. “My day doesn’t end at 5 p.m.,” she says. “Staff, press and coalition partners call after hours, before hours and on weekends, so I’m always on. I have to work really hard to squeeze in a few moments of quiet time whenever I can because even personal plans can get interrupted.”

When her schedule is open, she enjoys cooking with her 25-year-old son, Bertram Lee, whom she says serves as her sous chef. “We make a great team in the kitchen,” says Mrs. Murphy.

She also enjoys hiking and roaming around the Smithsonian with her husband, Bill Psillas, and tapping into her inner Martha Stewart. “I like to garden and make jewelry, and I love to set a pretty table,” she says. “I’m looking forward to the day when I have more time to do that.”

A member of the Ruth Brewster Chapter, Washington, D.C., Mrs. Murphy is also looking forward to getting more involved with DAR. Until then, she appreciates the characteristics she shares with her Patriot, Philip Livingston, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. “He was very active in the political debates of the day and was considered by many to be a radical,” she says, “so I think I have excellent DNA to do this work.”

It was Mrs. Murphy’s mother who encouraged her to join the DAR. “Just before she died in 2007, she told me I should go for it,” Mrs. Murphy says. “She thought that having our family history included in the DAR records would broaden people’s minds about what it means to be an American."

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