Featured Member: Martha Ertman ’85  

Martha Ertman ’85 is a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and the author of "Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape all Kinds of Families" (Beacon Press, 2015)

On being Wellesley born and bred. I grew up in Wellesley and went to Wellesley High School. My mom was an associate editor of the alumnae magazine. When I was a middle schooler and I’d hang out in Clapp in the summers and page through bound volumes of Life magazine from the 1940s. 

How she had fun at Wellesley. I was part of what was then called Wellesley Lesbians and Friends, or WOLF. I also spent time with friends in Oakwoods, which was then a new feminist coop. For about ten minutes I played on the rugby team, too. 

How a psycho-biology major became a lawyer. At Wellesley, I had a radio show at WZLY. I wanted to get a job in radio. But I had no luck doing that. So I got a job as a paralegal to think about law school. Although lawyers there told me, “Don’t go to law school. It’s a horrible thing,” but I went anyway, and it was a great thing. I started law school at Northwestern in Chicago in ’87. 

How she fell in love with contracts. Coming out of law school, I thought I would do constitutional law. I landed a job at a big firm that does constitutional law, but it wasn’t a great fit at all. I spent all of one Thanksgiving weekend working on a project, gave it to the lawyer, and barely got a “thank you.” Then the credit recovery people tapped on my shoulder. That lawyer was a great mentor: he gave me my first case, my first deposition, and my first summary judgment motion. I had thought that contract relationships were lifeless and found that instead they can be immensely interesting. All these human stories are embedded in commercial life all around us. 

Why we all should be interested in contracts. I write about how contracts reach into places that people don’t expect: parenthood agreements, implicit agreements about who cooks, who cleans up. Think about social life. We implicitly expect reciprocity. If you’re always giving gifts and not getting any back, at some point you’re going to stop giving gifts. When you go to a friend’s house for dinner, you bring a bottle of wine or some flowers. Each person expects to give and take and these informal agreements smooth social life by showing that everyone is both giving and getting.

About her book, Love’s Promises. People increasingly have children outside of marriage. People are getting married later, generally speaking. My book looks at all the ways that a family can be tailored as opposed to “off the rack.”  People become an “Us” in a wide range of ways, and contracts help recognize and protect that “us-ness.” Otherwise, for example, people who live together are legal strangers to each other. Even people who live together for 20 years and have 3 kids, the law does not recognize that relationship. 

What contracts mean for her family. When I decided I wanted to be a mother, I was in my late 30s and single. Fourteen years ago, with the help of a gay friend from law school and lots of doctors, our son was born.  We had a co-parenting agreement, describing where our son and I live, that we split fees for daycare and college.  It also plans for unpleasantness, promising that if my baby daddy and I can’t get along, we still will facilitate the child’s relationship with the other person’s family. I’m now married to a wonderful woman who came into our lives when our son was two. When we married, we signed an amended parenting agreement to made her a third parent. I wrote Love’s Promises  to tell people that contracts are friendlier than they think. Fourteen years into our son’s life we’re all getting along, and I like to think it’s because that contract took a whole bunch of things off the table by making financial and other things clear . 

How Wellesley touched her family. My wife is Jewish (I am not) and my son decided he wanted to be Bar Mitzvahed. He chose her religion. Elizabeth Schneirov and Jennifer Hertz Levi (both class of ’85) came.  It was a wonderful example of Wellesley facilitating connections.

Should I go to law school? It’s a great time to apply because schools are offering more financial aid than ever. There is an incredible range of professional opportunities that can come from a law degree. Law school classes are increasingly offering practical skills like contract drafting and negotiation. While there are a lot of unhappy lawyers, there are also a lot of lawyers who are extraordinarily glad to use their skills for good things in the world.

Martha Ertman’s book is also featured in this month’s edition of Mother Jones.



The Washington Wellesley Club is excited to introduce you to DC area alums through this new series of online profiles. Each month, a local alum will talk about living and working in DC and share memories of Wellesley. These profiles will illustrate how Wellesley alums stay creative and resilient despite the challenges that inevitably come our way. To view profiles of previously featured members, click here.