“She jump-started a national grass-roots movement for better pensions in this country,” Karen Friedman, executive director of the center, said in an interview. “Virtually every piece of consumer-oriented pension reform legislation over the last 45 years, she had a hand in.”
This included strengthening protections for widows and divorced spouses. Ms. Ferguson had been hearing from widows who weren’t receiving benefits because their husbands, unbeknown to them, had signed away their rights. Ms. Ferguson helped draft, and fought for passage of, the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law. Among other things, it required qualified pension plans to provide automatic survivor benefits and allow for waivers only with the consent of both the participant and the spouse.
She was also instrumental in the creation and passage of the Butch Lewis Act, named for an Ohio truck driver who died in 2015. That measure, signed into law this year by President Biden, restored the pensions of more than one million people whose retirement benefits had been severely reduced because of underfunded multi-employer pension plans.
Ms. Ferguson’s long-range goal was for the United States to establish a universal secure and adequate retirement system on top of an expanded Social Security system, to provide for those many private-sector workers who have no pension or retirement savings plan to fall back on. Developing such a system and getting it through Congress would be a vast and complex undertaking, much like the effort on health care legislation a decade ago, but because of Ms. Ferguson’s influence, some of her concepts are now under discussion on Capitol Hill.
“It’s one of the great secret scandals of our country,” she told Harvard Law Bulletin, that people “can work a lifetime and still not have enough money for retirement.”
Karen Ruth Willner was born on Feb. 17, 1941, in Manhattan. Her father, Sidney Willner, was a lawyer who helped break up the German coal and steel industries after World War II and then helped the Hilton hotel chain expand around the world. Her mother, Dorothy (Kunin) Willner, taught sociology at the college level and, among other things, persuaded the United Nations to adopt guidelines protecting the rights of consumers.
Karen grew up partly in Europe and finished high school in Bethesda, Md., before enrolling at Bryn Mawr College, outside Philadelphia. She graduated with a major in philosophy in 1962 and from Harvard Law School in 1965.