Law, History, and Feminism
FEMINIST LEGAL HISTORY: ESSAYS ON WOMEN AND LAW, T. Thomas & T. Boisseau, eds., NYU Press, April 2011
42 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2012
Date Written: March 1, 2011
This is the introduction to the book, Feminist Legal History. This edited collection offers new visions of American legal history that reveal women’s engagement with the law over the past two centuries. It integrates the stories of women into the dominant history of the law in what has been called “engendering legal history,” (Batlan 2005) and then seeks to reconstruct the assumed contours of history.
The introduction provides the context necessary to appreciate the diverse essays in the book. It starts with an overview of the existing state of women’s legal history, tracing the core events over the past two hundred years. This history, while sparse, provides the common foundation for the authors, and establishes the launching point for the deeper and more detailed inquiries offered here. Following this history is an exploration of the key themes advanced in the book. In Part I, Contradictions in Legalizing Gender, the essays develop analyses of the law’s contradictory response to women’s petitions. The essays in this section provide evidence of how law operated as a barrier to limit women’s power, and challenge the assumptions that such barriers have been eliminated today. Yet the essays in part I also present a more nuanced historical picture. They show the law’s facilitation of women’s agency and power, often based on the same gendered norms that elsewhere produced limitations. Part II of the book, Women’s Transformation of the Law, shows women’s impact upon the law and illustrates how women changed the law to incorporate their own, gendered, perspectives. By “feminizing” the legal process and altering the substantive law to respond to women’s needs, women were able to shape the law in their own image.
The introduction concludes with an overview of feminist legal thought. An appreciation of such theory and methodology is important to understanding the lens through which the authors and advocates over time approached the problems presented. Feminist Legal History is not just a collection of stories about women. Instead, it is a feminist inquiry of the historical record, in which feminist theory illuminates the positions and motivating beliefs of women over time.
Keywords: gender, legal history, history, equal protection, women
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