Keeping Our Legacy Alive: "A Crucial Element of Feminist History Is at Danger of Being Lost"


Keeping Our Legacy Alive: "A Crucial Element of Feminist History Is at Danger of Being Lost"


Title IX first completely allowed women admission to American law schools fifty years ago. Women made up less than 5% of law students in 1968, but by 1974 they had increased to 20%, and by 1978 they had reached 30%. Women made up more than 40% of all law students in 1985. After graduating, several of these women went on to become law professors, where they started to raise new issues and criticize the legal system's male-dominated structures and legislation.

One of these women was Martha Albertson Fineman, who at the University of Wisconsin Law School in the early 1980s started the Feminism and Legal Theory Project. The project has brought together academics and activists from the United States and overseas for decades to examine the most important legal issues now facing women. Feminists delivered working papers and discussed women's legal rights during multi-day sessions structured around distinct, developing sets of topics. These revolutionary discussions, as well as the working documents and other textual materials created during these meetings, were all captured and saved by Fineman.

Currently, Fineman is having difficulty persuading librarians who are more accustomed to compiling the papers of specific people or groups of people of the significance of this historical collection of written, visual, and audible materials tracing the evolution of feminist concepts, aspirations, and theory.

An oasis of feminism in a hostile environment

In the same year that Title IX outlawed sex discrimination in law schools, Fineman started law school. In her class, she was one of just 18 women.

According to Fineman, "the number of admitted women increased significantly over the decade." It was a time when establishing gender equality was a goal.

She introduced a feminist approach to the law when she started teaching at a law school in 1976, which made her stand out from the crowd.

Early feminist legal theorists frequently had solitary academic lives, according to Fineman. I started the Feminism and Legal Theory Project in 1984 out of sheer desperation.

The Project developed into a haven for feminist teachers across the nation, providing them with a lifeline in an environment that was otherwise unfriendly to their cause.

According to Fineman, "I nearly didn't gain tenure at the University of Wisconsin because of my feminist work." Feminists and 'leftists' in general were being kept out of the academy at the time. Many people were not given tenure even after being employed. The project supported the critical theory work of dozens of women and men. We established a secure environment for the growth of concepts that were being overlooked, rejected, or attacked elsewhere in academia.

In 1990, Fineman transferred to Columbia Law School, afterward attended Cornell, and is currently a student at Emory Law School. She has traveled every step of the way carrying the Feminism and Legal Theory Project.

Participants in the project workshops include naming just a few, Patricia J. Williams, Eileen Boris, Robin L. West, Claudia Card, Elizabeth M. Schneider, Dorothy Roberts, and Victoria Nourse. Participants come from a wide range of academic fields, many from universities around the world, including historians, political scientists, philosophers, gender researchers, and others.

"The initiative is far more than just a group of people giving separate papers,' According to Fineman, it created and maintained an organic community centered around a common set of challenges that supported and fostered transformative ideas. It was crucial in the growth of feminist legal theory as a shared, cooperative endeavor, in addition to being significant to those people and their work.

Patricia J. Williams, a renowned expert in critical race theory, refers to Fineman as her "godmother" in the legal community. Williams wrote the seminal article "On Being the Object of Property," which explores slavery, race, gender, and rights.

I had just finished writing 'On Being the Object of Property' when I decided that I was going to stop my legal studies. I actually wrote down what I was most concerned about as a result of discussions with the feminist legal theory summer seminars. In a very ironic way, that article actually initiated a conversation that led me back to the legal academy in a very different capacity when it became viral in those days.

The Fineman's Feminism and Legal Theory Project has sponsored hundreds of discussions where feminist thinkers from all over the world and the United States have formed and examined a wide range of ideas about women's position within the law and society for nearly four decades. The "public nature of private violence," motherhood's legal regulation, feminism's media reception, the relevance of economics to feminist thought, the complexities of sexuality, conflicting parental and children's rights, the causes and ramifications of dependency and vulnerability, and the scope and nature of social responsibility were all topics covered in those discussions.

The best ideas are developed through collaboration in welcoming, encouraging communities, as feminist theory teaches us, according to Fineman. "Consciousness-raising and experience-sharing have helped feminism advance. The best politics and ideas come from group interactions and procedures.

These discussions first centered on sex discrimination against and exclusion of women as well as how women may get legal equality of treatment and opportunity. By pushing for the inclusion and accommodation of women's gendered lives in all of society's institutions, including the professional, political, and economic structures, as well as the home, the conversation eventually evolved to question the structures and values of society.

According to Fineman, "this move from an emphasis on discrimination to a criticism of social structures and arrangements, even if they are legally inclusive or gender neutral, constituted the theoretical and political passage from a "women in law" paradigm to a feminist model for social reform. It called for institutions to change to reflect and consider the realities of women's lives and acknowledged the constructive role law may play in such change.

The Boundaries of Law, which was released in 1991, was the first anthology of feminist legal theory to come out of these discussions. Numerous special issues of law reviews, over a dozen collections, and hundreds of individual papers developing an interdisciplinary approach to the feminist legal theory were among the many that came after.

In the Feminism and Legal Theory Project, we organized what Fineman referred to as "uncomfortable conversations"—events where people who held similar values but disagreed on tactics and implementation could converse. "If there were points of contention regarding the group's goals, you might discuss them and, ideally, resolve them amicably. That is the only practical way to advance.

All of these discussions were captured by Fineman, providing a rich archive of nearly four decades of feminist intellectual history. But she is now having trouble finding a place for this priceless collection of pioneering feminist legal philosophers.

"History can teach us valuable lessons. If we don't preserve and collect history, it won't be able to instruct us, according to Fineman.

One of the few institutions with the capacity to care for the Fineman collection is the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, but they informed her that despite realizing the importance of her collection, they would not accept her archives because of their other priorities. "We do understand the genuine relevance of the conferences, the ideas created, and know it is an important resource for researchers," a Harvard representative allegedly said to Fineman. Sadly, it is inconsistent with our present strategic initiatives, which include a stronger emphasis on the lives of women of color. We wouldn't be able to devote the funds the archives require to their upkeep.

Other archives have indicated they have other priorities (for example, Smith is prioritizing papers related to sex workers' rights while Duke "does not focus on the papers of legal scholars") or they lack the resources or technical capability to house the collection. These archives include the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History at Smith College, the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture at Duke University, and the Pembroke Center Archives at Brown University.

The magnitude of the collection, according to some, is prohibitive, said Fineman. They initially discuss the need to digitize everything, but they go on to explain that this will increase costs and require continual technology updates, which will reduce the amount of data they can really get.

Fineman is concerned about how decisions are made to preserve women's history after speaking with individuals at women's history archives. "Who decides what and who from the past is significant? What constitutes women's or feminist history is ultimately shaped by how and why these individuals arrive at such judgments, according to Fineman. "A significant chapter in feminist history is in danger of being forgotten, marginalized, or lost."

What purpose does a feminist archive or a women's history archive serve? Is it "either-or" to choose to preserve the histories of particular women or the histories of a social movement, complete with all the debates, conflicts, and dead ends? The crucial question is whether or not doing both is necessary to portray feminist reality from a political and ethical standpoint.

The recently inducted member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and award-winning feminist scholar Fineman is planning a series of "uncomfortable conversations" for the fall to discuss how we currently understand and preserve feminist history and how we might consider doing things differently. Fineman believes that in addition to feminist legal scholars and activists, the discussions will also involve librarians and historians.

"I want people to start considering what is lost if we see history in a very constrained and selfish manner. What significance do the arguments and controversies from the past have in terms of current issues? What is lost if we fail to see how certain contemporary concerns are the continuation of earlier feminist battles and insights?

The necessity of keeping the archives of feminist efforts for women's rights has increased as we approach the 50th anniversary of Title IX and as women's hard-won rights are endangered more than ever. I hope this history is preserved.

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