Women in Law

Women in Law

Women in Law

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 8 2008 12:42 PM

Women in Law

Well, Doug, between your support for Obama and that last post lamenting the continuing dilemmas of women lawyers with families, the progressive lawyers over at the American Constitution Society may need to declare you an honorary member. 

I've always been reluctant to wade into public discussions about women and law, in part I suspect because ever since taking a great college course in feminist theory from de Beauvoir to Gilligan to McKinnon to bell hooks (et seq.), I've had the nagging feeling I've not read anything genuinely new on the subject of women's equality in the United States. Sure, there've been regular and unfortunate flare-ups in the appalling "mommy wars" and, of course, a regular diet of studies on women in the professions—which are always useful but never entirely convincing on questions of how things are, why things are as they seem to be, or what should be done about any of it. And there is also the likely possibility I've just not read everything I need to read.

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Yet despite the risk of adding to the surfeit of nothing new, I admit Doug's post just brought rather acutely to mind several conversations I've had in the past few months with law professor friends and colleagues of mine, many of whom have been generous in offering advice and guidance as I ponder embarking on a career in legal academia (having already experienced for at least some time men and women at work during stints as a federal law clerk, a law firm associate, and a nonprofit attorney). 

The most daunting advice was from a female tenured professor, who warned that constitutional law especially was one of the last great bastions of good-old-boy power in legal academe and that I'd better steel myself with all the arrogance I could muster if I expected to survive. And, fair enough, the "human rights law" conferences I've attended have been overflowing with talented women, while I've felt noticeably more isolated on panels in the realm of national security or constitutional law. The women I've spoken to often echo (more often less sternly) the notion that this is some remaining vestige of the good old boys. Most men have said they see it as an unexplained dearth of women in the field. 

(A few other men in recent years have suggested that I, like their wives/colleagues' wives/junior colleagues, just not worry about a "real" tenure-track job. If research/writing/teaching is what I enjoy, easy enough to do that in a perpetual researcher capacity. After all (I paraphrase only slightly), my husband has tenure enough for us both.  Such dinners generally haven't extended through dessert. And I am reminded of why arrogance can be such a boon to individual happiness in life.)

The most gender-uniform warnings, though, come from a certain kind of parent of young children (and I know such folks of both genders). "I haven't written anything since the first one was born." "I only write during the summer." "Our faculty seminars are always held at dinnertime/bedtime/after school." And so on. Despite all the generally well-meaning people of both genders I know and the every-few-years-in-every-venue-I've-worked-stunningly-sexist remarks I've heard (my longtime personal favorite: "You have to realize your mind is a sword, people are going to perceive it that way, and you need to work on softening that.")—it's the parenting argument I find most currently compelling. I've no doubt there are gender differences writ large here in how this plays out. But for this kind of professional parent of either gender, there just aren't enough hours in the day. And so I find myself struck by the family-friendly musings of Doug Kmiec. But pessimistic there'll be a solution during my working life.

Your advice, colleagues, remains most welcome.