By Amy Sennett, WLA VP
On Monday, March 7th, the WLA hosted a panel discussion, “Feminist Perspectives on the 1L Curriculum.” Panelists included Professor Jon Hanson, Visiting Professor Katherine Porter, and Lecturer Diane Rosenfeld of HLS and Professor Jenny Wriggins of the University of Maine.
The diversity of attendees at the event proved that a feminist analysis of the 1L curriculum is relevant to more than just the women in a law school classroom. A broader conception of a feminist analysis can highlight the ways in which the law, on paper but more often in practice, contains prejudices against a number of minority groups.
Fortunately, scholars like Hanson and Wriggins have begun to explore the sources of this prejudice in their academic writings in the tort law field. Wriggins’ recently published book, “Measure of Injury: Race, Gender and Tort Law” with Professor Martha Chamallas, demonstrates how attitudes about race and gender run through the harms recognized – and left unrecognized – in the history of American tort law. During the panel, Wriggins offered an example of a reduced punishment given to a white man in Florida in the 1960s who had become enraged by the sight of a black man and white woman sitting together in the front of a commuter bus. Much of Hanson’s effort to bring a “situationist” perspective to his 1L torts class, including the incorporation of recent findings from the field of behavioral psychology, reflects a belief that standing in the shoes of a case protagonist can help to reveal the systemic biases in an area of law often crafted without the perspective of women and minorities.
Porter suggested that her fields, business law and property law, are relatively behind tort law in incorporating feminist perspectives. Again many of the statutes and case law in this field reflect antiquated notions of legal personhood, harkening back to a time when women could not hold property and American-Americans themselves were considered property. Porter noted that the most common image of women in property law casebooks remains that of the helpless widow or divorcee who is unfamiliar adrift in the male-dominated financial world. (Hanson added that in the traditional corporate law textbooks, the only female case protagonist from the case Francis v. United Jersey Bank is infamous for violating both the duty of care and the duty of loyalty.) Regrettably, Porter suggested that the lack of progress could be explained in part by the lack of female students and female participation even today in courses in these fields.
Rosenfeld, who focuses her teaching and clinical supervision specifically on domestic violence and gender crimes, addresses feminist issues in the law every day. She praised her legal training at the University of Wisconsin Law School for instilling in her an understanding of the difference between the way the law should work in principle and the way the law does work in fact, as well as a desire to close that gap. Rosenfeld concluded that still today the law doesn’t work well for women. Although she felt that the strong attendance of the lunch panel was a sign that law students and future lawyers were more aware of these issues, she pointed to decisions like U.S. v. Morrison, in which the Supreme Court struck down key portions of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, as evidence of the legal reforms still necessary.