In Memoriam: Norma Briggs

Norma Briggs, 79, Oregon, Wis., a longtime member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, died April 30, 2015, during a sunset tour of her garden after falling and failing to regain consciousness.

She was born Norma Lynne Jones in Romford, England, near London, on June 5, 1935, to Florence Evelyn Lucas and William Albert Jones. She experienced evacuation during World War II. Her parents divorced when she was 2.

Norma enrolled in a girls boarding school in Kent at age 11, excelling academically, playing tennis and lacrosse. She met her future husband, Michael Briggs, in 1954, at the University of Exeter in Devonshire. They married on June 30, 1956, in a civil ceremony in Romford. Norma completed her B.A. with high honors in English. Mike earned a master’s in teaching.

They moved to the U.S. in 1958 so Mike could do graduate work at Duke University. Norma worked as a recreational therapist and earned a master’s in social work from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1962. In 1962 they moved with their two daughters to Nigeria, where Mike joined a Ford Foundation team to set up a national library and Norma ran a pre-kindergarten program from their home.

They moved to Madison, Wis., in 1966, when Mike accepted a position as African Studies bibliographer in the Memorial Library of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Son John was born in Madison in December 1966. Chukwumah Udeh joined the family during the Nigerian civil war, graduating from Edgewood College and earning his M.D. from the UW Medical School.

As a social worker, she conducted a federal study on the lack of women apprentices in skilled trades and worked as executive secretary for the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, which developed historic reforms. Norma later directed the Equal Rights Division of the Wisconsin Department of Labor, Industry and Human Relations. She entered the law school at UW-Madison in 1981, embarking on a two-decade legal career, most of it as a solo practitioner and later in partnership with Mike.

In 1989, Norma represented Anne Nicol Gaylor and the Women’s Medical Fund in a successful lawsuit forcing state Attorney General Donald Hanaway to withdraw Wisconsin’s name from a Supreme Court amicus brief calling for the overthrow of Roe v. Wade. The Women’s Medical Fund was co-founded and administered until March 2015 by Anne Gaylor, then FFRF president. Hanaway was forced to write the Supreme Court a letter withdrawing the state’s name from Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.

Norma had a teaching certificate for the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, and was active in the society’s John Muir (Wisconsin) Branch for almost 40 years, teaching children’s classes and mentoring other dancers. She was also an expert Scrabble player. She and Mike were active in politics and feminism.

She died during a sunset tour of her garden after falling and failing to regain consciousness.

Survivors include her husband, Mike; their children, Carolyn Briggs, Helen Mueller, Marian Mead and John Briggs; and five grandchildren.

A gathering of family and friends was held June 6 at the Fitchburg Senior Center, followed by a potluck dinner at Norma and Mike’s home in Oregon, Wis., preceded by a “wander in Norma’s garden.”

“Besides being so grateful for her legal representation in the Hanaway case, we knew Norma as our former neighbor. She even served as our attorney in the closing of our house,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “She was a wonderful hostess and an exceptionally talented gardener, moving from our block with its small parcels to the country where she could garden and landscape to her heart’s delight — and the delight of everyone who saw her gardens.”

Norma will be immortalized on a paving stone soon in the new Rose Zerwick Memorial Garden and Courtyard. She and Mike generously purchased a paving stone to support FFRF’s building expansion. Among the groups which the family designated for memorials is the late Anne Gaylor’s Women’s Medical Fund, Box 248, Madison, WI 53701,, a 501(c)(3) charity.

“Our warmest condolences to Mike and his family. We, and the world, will all miss Norma so much,” added Gaylor.

Norma’s family suggested that Donations in her memory may be made to the Women’s Medical Fund, Box 248, Madison, WI 53701

Freedom From Religion Foundation