Monday, November 30, 2020
I've just posted a new book chapter, The Long History of Feminist Legal Theory, forthcoming in in The Oxford Handbook of Feminism and Law in the United States (Deborah L. Brake, Martha Chamallas & Verna L. Williams eds. Oxford Univ. Press).
This chapter challenges the conventional idea that feminist legal theory began in the 1970s. The advent of legal feminism is usually placed in the second wave feminist movement, birthed by the political activism of the women’s liberation movement and nurtured by the intellectual leadership of women scholars newly entering legal academia. However, legal feminism has a much longer history, going back more than a century earlier. While the term “feminist” was not used in the United States until the 1910s, the foundations of feminist legal theory were first conceptualized as early as 1848 and developed over the next one hundred and fifty years. This chapter traces that development. It begins with the establishment of the core theoretical precepts of gender and equality grounded in the surprisingly comprehensive philosophy of the nineteenth-century’s first women’s rights movement ignited at Seneca Falls. It then shows how feminist legal theory was popularized and advanced by the political activism of the women’s suffrage movement, even as suffragists limited the feminist consensus to one based on women’s maternalism. Progressive feminism then expanded the theoretical framework of feminist theory in the early twentieth century, encapsulating ideas of global peace, market work, and sex rights of birth control. In the modern era, legal feminists gravitated back to pragmatic and concrete ideas of formal equality, and the associated legalisms of equal rights and equal protection. Yet through each of these periods, the two common imperatives were to place women at the center of analysis and to recognize law as a fundamental agent of change.