Relational Feminism and Law

Robin West, Georgetown Law


What should a liberal legal order require of women who are its subjects, and what should women require of a liberal legal order? One answer to both questions that has dominated both mainstream and feminist Western legal analysis over the last half century is “legal equality”: women should be treated equally by law. There are, however, limits to the reach of formal equality as an overarching principle, or tool, for enhancing women’s lives, and for making our shared world safe and hospitable for all of us. In this essay, I address three of them, which I will characterize loosely as problems or dilemmas with liberal feminism, all of which originate in some way with its assumption that women and men are the same in all ways that should matter to law – a premise that can be called as a shorthand the “sameness” assumption. I then address a few solutions to these problems that are express or implied by current feminist reform movements, each of which, I believe, are problematic. The solution I will ultimately endorse to each of them is the foundational claim of what is sometimes known, in brief, as a “relational legal feminism.” In so doing, this essay will summarize and comment upon the relational feminist legal work of the last thirty or forty years.