Women’s entry into the legal academy in significant numbers—first as students, then as faculty—was a 1970s and 1980s phenomenon. During those decades, women in law schools struggled: first, for admission and inclusion as individual students on a formally equal footing with male students; then for parity in their numbers in classes and on faculties; and, eventually, for some measure of substantive equality across various parameters, including their performance and evaluation both in and in front of the classroom, as well as in the quality of their experiences as students and faculty members and in the benefits to be reaped from their tenure. This part of the story of women’s entry into the legal academy in the 1970s and 1980s—a story of attempted admission, then inclusion, then integration and assimilation, and then, finally, equality—is now a familiar one, at least in broad outline. It is not, in its entirety, an uplifting story. According to a raft of articles produced by women law students in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, women law students during those decades participated less in the classroom, were called on and responded to differently when they did participate, suffered from more law-school-induced anxiety disorders and other mental health issues, graduated with lower GPAs and less law review experience, published fewer notes and filled fewer editorial positions on those journals, held fewer leadership positions overall while in law school, and had far more difficulties connecting with mentors, teachers, and would-be recommenders among the faculty than male students. Women law professors during those decades were tenured at significantly lower rates than men and, particularly at high prestige schools and at schools with fewer female faculty among the tenured ranks, were hired at lower rates that did not reflect their number in the pool of qualified applicants, had trouble asserting or maintaining authority in the classroom or being perceived as having authority, taught lower-prestige courses and received low teaching evaluations, and, like their students, were published far less frequently in the major and most prestigious law reviews.
Much of this, albeit not all, has not changed much for either students or faculty. As women in law schools enter the posttenure and midcareer phase, many of the old problems persist while new ones appear: women faculty are invited to participate on panels less often than men, and both women students and faculty are underrepresented as authors in law reviews. Although gender-neutral parental leave is now available to faculty at most law schools, many such policies are still ad hoc. There is considerable worry, although no hard evidence, over whether men disproportionately use the time off to write rather than care for children. Women are still disproportionately overrepresented in some fields and underrepresented or unrepresented in others, and those fields correlate in unsurprising ways with levels of prestige: the more women in a field, the less prestigious. As elsewhere in the workforce, women faculty in legal education suffer from sexual harassment, most of which is unremedied. Women still suffer a pay gap in law schools that remains unaddressed at most universities, as it does elsewhere in academia. There is a sizeable literature on these depressing phenomena that stubbornly do not seem to abate.
In these comments, however, I want to focus on another, less appreciated, part of the story of women’s entry into the legal academy in the 1970s and 1980s: the emergence of a body of scholarship—sometimes called feminist legal theory—produced by some of these women legal scholars over the same time period. The story I want to focus on, in other words, is not that of second- or third-wave women’s struggles within the academy, either for admission, acceptance, assimilation, or equality in law schools. Rather, this Article focuses on the story of the scholarship some of those second-wave assimilated women produced once they got there. Feminist jurisprudence, understood largely as scholarship on issues pertaining to gender equality, was launched in the 1970s, endures today, and continues to shape debates. Feminist legal theory, however, was in effect a subfield within feminist jurisprudence and, as its name implies, was an attempt to fashion a broad- based theoretical account of the relationship of law in liberal legal regimes to women’s subordination, patriarchy, and gender and sexual inequality— particularly in a post–civil rights era, when women enjoyed broad access to rights of formal equality, reproductive liberty, and liberal antidiscrimination law. Feminist legal theory so understood—a body of scholarship in search of a theoretical understanding of the relation of law to women’s subordination or, more simply, of law and patriarchy—was birthed in the 1970s, nurtured in the 1980s, and matured in the 1990s. I suggest in this Article that it is now seemingly in decline, and may soon disappear altogether.
The reasons for this trajectory, I believe, are to date unexplored. Some reasons are fairly self-evident. Feminist legal theory was a product of three time-specific factors peculiar to the 1970s and 1980s: it reflected the political and the legal struggles of second-wave feminism. The critical theory schools were, to varying degrees, present or thriving in the academy in the 1970s and 1980s, within which feminist legal theory was birthed, grew, and then coexisted with critical theory, albeit at times very uneasily; and this feminist theory reflected second-wave women faculty and students’ mixed experiences of assimilation, success, and alienation in law schools themselves, as briefly recited above. Those three factors—the background politics, the presence of critical theory in law schools, and the differences in women’s experience of those schools—are all themselves either disappearing or dissipating in felt urgency, albeit in different ways and at different speeds, and that dissipation clearly is a part of the story of feminist legal theory’s decline. There are other reasons for its decline as well, however. Some are internal to feminism and feminist theory, and some pertain to the changing nature of legal scholarship from the 1980s to the present. I explore these reasons in Part II below.
The story of the development of a distinctively feminist legal theory during the 1970s through the 1990s, and the story of its decline in the 2000s, is of obvious relevance to the history of second- and third-wave feminism. It should also be of interest for what it reveals about the nature of legal scholarship as it was understood, received, and produced in those decades. Its decline likewise reveals something about the changing nature of legal scholarship and the legal academy today. Thus, one conclusion I draw is that the feminist legal theory of the 1970s through the 1990s—regardless of the truth or lasting power of its claims—stands as an example of a type of legal scholarship that was somewhat distinctive to those decades. That form of legal scholarship, furthermore, likely can only emanate from the legal academy. For a host of reasons, we are currently in danger of losing this entire genre of intellectual work, which would be the polity’s loss, not just feminism’s or the legal academy’s.
87 Fordham L. Rev. 977
Scholarly Commons Citation
West, Robin, "Women in the Legal Academy: A Brief History of Feminist Legal Theory" (2018). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2119.