Feminist Legal Theory For Beginners?

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I got a nice and very funny e-mail from an FLP reader who asked whether this blog could begin posting accessible overviews of feminist legal theory for folks who are interested but haven’t been exposed before. It’s an interesting idea and I’m thinking about useful ways to approach such a project. For now, I’m going to list some books that I think do a pretty good job of laying out the basics. If anyone has other recommendations, by all means leave them in the comments or e-mail them to me and I’ll add them to the list.

Introduction to Feminist Legal Theory (2d edition) by Martha Chamallas (Aspen 2003). This book is a kind of treatise, written by one person in a consistent and largely neutral voice, that provides an overview of the basic concepts of feminist legal theory. I think Martha Chamallas did a great job of explaining a lot of complicated concepts in clear, accessible language, and it’s a terrific primer for beginnners. If I was going to teach Feminist Legal Theory to students who were not necessarily feminists, or positively inclined towards feminism themselves, this would be the book I’d rely on initially.

Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer, by Nancy Levit and Robert R.M. Verckick (NYU Press 2006). This book is also excellent. It describes the intersection of feminism and specific social issues in somewhat greater detail than the Chamallas book, with a bit more authorial viewpoint. If someone was teaching Feminist Legal Theory to students who had self-selected into a course because they were specifically interested in feminism, this book would be a great choice.

Feminist Legal Theory: Readings in Law and Gender, edited by Katharine T. Bartlett and Rosanne Kennedy (Westview 1991),

Feminist Legal Theory Foundations, edited by D. Kelly Weisberg (Temple U. Press 1993); and

Feminist Legal Theory: An Anti-Essentialist Reader, edited By Nancy E. Dowd and Michelle S. Jacobs (NYU Press 2003).

These three books are collections of articles and essays by a wide range of feminist legal scholars on a variety of compelling topics. Most of the constituent works of all three books were written for an audience that already knows something about feminist legal theory, although each book also contains a few relatively introductory offerings. The Bartlett & Kennedy and Weisberg books contain very diverse voices and topics, while the Dowd & Jacobs book is more narrowly focused on works that are expressly anti-essentialist (i.e. discuss the impact on and importance to feminism of differences between women).

There are a lot of other terrific books about feminist legal theory, but these are my initial recommendations for newcomers to the field.

–Ann Bartow

UPDATE: Another great book for teaching purposes is a text book: Gender and Law: Theory, Doctrine, Commentary (4th edition) by Katharine Bartlett and Deborah Rhode (Aspen 2006). Feminist law prof Vernellia Randall has taught a “Gender and the Law” course using earlier editions of this book, and her 2004 course website is accessible here.

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0 Responses to Feminist Legal Theory For Beginners?

  1. Patrick Seamus says:

    I was pleased to learn, that despite my ignorance here, I have two of the recommended titles (Chamallas, and the Dowd and Jacobs volume). However, my modest library also includes Catharine MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989) and her latest, Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws (2005). In addition I have three volumes from her casebook series on ‘sex equality.’

    I cannot not claim to be a ‘feminist’ insofar as I’m not confident I understand all that entails, but I do find myself agreeing or identifying with much of what falls under the rubric of feminism.

    That said, I trust I can be forgiven for suggesting two more titles for your list: Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), and her Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

    And thanks for this list, as I’ll check out the other titles.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    These are great suggestions too, and of course both MacKinnon and Nussbaum are extremely important feminist authors. The initial query asked for “beginners” books, which is why I made the recommendations I did, which reference and incorporate works by both authors, particularly MacKinnon. Any comprehensive list of Feminist Legal Theory books would certainly include the volumes you mention. I will try to do a list like that in the future.

  3. Patrick Seamus says:

    Whoops, I left out one book that I’ve skimmed through but yet to read carefully. Nonetheless, on first glance it appears to have much to recommend it: Timothy Macklem, Beyond Comparison: Sex and Discrimination (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

    Perhaps I should also mention that I learned of this post from Larry Solum’s Legal Theory Blog.

    Best wishes,