Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On women's legal history

(My thanks to IntLawGrrls for this opportunity to guest-post.)

Women's legal history in the United States is developing as a new and exciting field that provides alternative perspectives on legal issues both past and present. Feminist legal history seeks to examine both the ways in which law historically has informed women's rights and how feminist discourse has shaped the law.
A recent symposium edition of the Akron Law Review provides a sampling of the promising work underway in this nascent field. The articles found in that edition originate from a 2007 conference entitled “The New Face of Women’s Legal History” and held at the University of Akron School of Law’s Constitutional Law Center. (photo credit) As summarized in my introduction to the conference, the papers include explorations of the gendered origins of nuisance law, the feminization of criminal “problem-solving” courts, the use of trust and estates law to free Southern slave women, and the assertion of public citizenship by mixed-race women. In their articles the authors -- Professors Felice Batlan (Chicago-Kent), Mae C. Quinn (Tennessee), Bernie D. Jones (Suffolk), and Taunya Lovell Banks (Maryland) (prior IntLawGrrls post) -- draw upon the active scholarship in women’s history that may be found in the academic traditions of law, history, women’s studies, and political science.
Additional research on the broader picture of U.S. feminist legal history is being published in Feminist Legal History: Women’s Agency in the Law, a collection that I am editing along with T.J. Boisseau (below right), my colleague in Akron's Department of History. Contributing authors to this book employ the core theme -- women's use of the law for feminist discourse -- in a variety of historical contexts to reframe and illuminate such topics as: women's rights in the family; women's participation in the military; and women's role in legal activism in social justice movements.
Chapters explore women in in a variety of contexts, such as:
► marriage,
► anti-miscegenation cases,
► labor,
► temperance,
► tort law,
► suffrage,
► problem-solving courts,
► sexual harassment, and
► legal aid organizations.
Women’s historical engagement with the law is thus revealed. The collective story is one of agency, of the ability of women to gain active control over their lives and social circumstances. Rather than remaining passive as the law decided for them, or ignored their experiences and realities, women took the law into their own hands and acted affirmatively for their own benefit and for the benefit of a larger social justice. Even as the legal rules established barriers to women’s equality and denied women public and political rights, women continued to appeal to the legal process as a venue for change. They asserted their rights, demanded new legal responses to their lived experiences, and integrated their gendered notions of justice into an unwelcoming system.
Feminist legal history offers a pragmatic, or “applied,” scholarship to feminist legal studies. It is concerned with the personal, private experiences of women. Like other feminist legal theory projects it is -- to quote this apt description of the work of Martha Fineman (prior IntLawGrrls posts) -- “born of the world, responding to real lives and needs, reflecting the law and society tradition of reasoning from the world to law.” This kind of “applied legal scholarship” seeks to make history directly relevant to modern legal discourse, with the hope it will impact future changes in the law that are responsive to the lived realities of women.

1 comment:

Naomi Norberg said...

Welcome Tracy and thanks for introducing us to women's legal history! Looking forward to being able to read your book.