Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Future of Women's Legal History

Mary Ziegler (Florida State) has been blogging with us this past month. Her work in legal history focuses on the law and history of abortion, illegitimacy, contraception, marriage, and child care.

As I end my visit to Gender and the Law, it’s worth imagining what women’s legal history will look like in a decade or decades from now. I’ve suggested that we reevaluate what counts as a women’s legal movement—that we look in new and unanticipated directions when we do women’s legal history. We should also carry on important work that questions the definition of law. It is easy to fall back on traditional understandings: we study lawyers and professional identity, the relationship between social movements and legal reform, the influence of women on legal doctrine and of legal doctrine on women’s lives and the meaning of gender.

But women have always practiced law in unconventional ways, in unpredictable places. Historians are teaching us that women created law regardless of whether they had formal legal training. Social workers, bureaucrats, grassroots advocates, politicians, and ordinary citizens interpret the law in ways that matter, even if we cannot find evidence of their visions in contemporary rules. My own work explores how new understandings of constitutional law have formed in abortion clinics or street protests. These interpretations of the law looked very different from the ones set forth by the federal courts. Those practicing law were abortion providers and social workers, patients and doctors. Even though these women never sought legal counsel or changed black-letter rules, their understandings of law shaped who got reproductive healthcare and how women understood themselves and their decisions. These narratives about the past teach us how gender and law have remained fluid and contested. What we mean when we talk about women’s legal history will certainly change, since both gender and law remain open to re-imagining.

Legal history tells one small part of the story of women who have transformed our understanding of family, community, society, and law. Fundamentally, women’s legal history helps us understand not just where we are but where we can go. It reminds us of how women will continue to redefine what law could mean and be. 


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