Emory Report
October 27, 2008
Volume 61, Number 9

25th anniversary conference
“Transcending the Boundaries of Law: Generations of Feminism
and Legal Theory.”
Nov. 6-8, Emory University
For schedule, registration
and more information, visit, www.law.emory.edu



Emory Report homepage  

October 27
, 2008
Feminism and Legal Theory Project turns 25

Martha Albertson Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, is director and founder of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project.

The Feminism and Legal Theory (FLT) Project began in 1984 at the University of Wisconsin. It has traveled with me to Columbia and Cornell universities and now is poised to enter its 25th year at Emory University School of Law. Since moving to Emory, I have been asked on numerous occasions to explain what feminist legal theory is all about. Partly, this is a question about feminism, but also it is an inquiry about the relationship between feminism and law.

Feminism is concerned with gender equality and justice. As noted historian Linda Gordon stated, feminism is “an analysis of women’s subordination for the purpose of figuring out how to change it.” Not surprisingly, the desire for change in a world that discriminated on the basis of gender eventually led many women to look to law and law reform.

When large numbers of women entered law school in the 1970s, however, they found the traditional legal tools inadequate to forge the essential changes needed to achieve gender equality. Legal theories and practice incorporated the same biases and assumptions about gender that were found in the larger society. Feminist legal theory provided the language and concepts with which to challenge and revise existing, discriminatory doctrine and practice.

Today it is widely recognized within the academy that feminist thought represents a distinct and important theoretical approach to law. Feminist legal theory is taught in separate courses or seminars, and it informs the instruction of more traditional doctrinal areas, such as torts and criminal law. The success of feminist legal theory in the academy is but one indication of its power to transform the way in which law is understood in relation to the larger society.

The impact of feminist theory also is evident in the analyses and doctrine employed by courts and the policy developed by legislative bodies. Feminist legal scholars are cited in judicial opinions, and their work is used in continuing education sessions. Feminist theorists’ concepts and ideas are referenced in international governmental reports and United Nations commissions.

Just last summer, the FLT Project partnered with the Dutch Military Academy to present an international workshop in Amsterdam at the DMA headquarters that addressed violence against women and the role of peacekeepers in times of conflict. Presenters included members of the military, politicians, United Nations personnel and feminist scholars.

Looking at the evolution of law in a variety of areas, it seems evident that the very foundations of legal thought have been revised over the past several decades in light of feminist insights and arguments. Family law in particular is an area where feminist insights have effected significant change. For example, property division rules at divorce were altered in response to the argument that women as homemakers and mothers made valuable, even if nonmonetary (or different), contributions to the family.

In addition, an understanding of the way gender differences are constructed within societal institutions, such as the family and workplace, have ushered in “new” legal concepts and doctrines. In defining sexual harassment, legislatures and courts recognized that a “typical” woman’s reactions to an experience of “flirtation” in the workplace might not be the same as a man’s.

The reasonable man in tort law has morphed into the reasonable person. The realization that sometimes women and children were abused in the home led scholars and activists to articulate powerful arguments against an overarching application of privacy that shielded such abuses within the family.

Today, all elite law schools have specific programs on gender and feminist theory. For example, Columbia University offers an ongoing faculty/student seminar on feminist theory and also is home to the Gender and Sexuality Program. Emory Law can be proud of its position as an international leader in this important area. The FLT Project hosts four or five workshops each year and brings to Emory visiting scholars from around the world all while supporting faculty and student feminist scholarship.

This fall, Emory Law will celebrate 25 years of the FLT Project’s many accomplishments, including its role in ensuring the ongoing development of feminist legal thought for the next generation.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2008 issue of Emory Lawyer.