Professor Felice Batlan explains how feminism has affected her career, her life, and how she continues to allow feminism to guide her teaching.
Like so many women my path into my professional life had multiple turns and forks. When asked the simple question of what I do, or even what I teach, my responses often vary depending upon the situation. At times, I imagine myself as the perfect example of the post-modern being â€“ a person with multiple identities and selves. I am a professor, lawyer, historian, and feminist who teaches corporations, legal history, gender and the law, feminist theory, and securities law. Surprisingly, I am equally comfortable teaching all four but when forced, I label myself a feminist legal historian.
I can’t remember a time when I was not a feminist. I went to Smith College seeking a community of women scholars and it is at Smith that I discovered late-ninetieth century middle-class women’s reform organizations as well as early twentieth century women’s trade unions. From the challenging intellectual but nurturing world of Smith, Harvard Law School was a shock. In 1987, there were still only four full-time women faculty and the study of women often at the forefront of my classes at Smith, almost disappeared from the curriculum. Critical Legal Studies and legal history became a site of comfort for me. Something that I could understand, that seemed vaguely rebellious, and that profoundly questioned the dominant paradigms of law. I became entranced by nineteenth century legal history but couldn’t understand where all the women went, they disappeared between the two hour drive between Northampton, Massachusetts and Cambridge. Working at the Harvard Women’s Law Journal, I was able to partially assemble a community of women and found my way to the scholarship of Catharine MacKinnon, Robin West, and Mary Jo Frug. The deal that I made with myself went something like this: for every two law cases I read, I allowed myself ten pages of feminist legal scholarship.
Although I had always intended to become a professor, the pull of a law firm was too much to resist and I found myself practicing securities law in New York, first in private practice and then at an investment bank. At a very young age, I superficially became what I thought the post-second wave liberal feminist should be â€“ an independent woman with money and access to power who functioned in an almost entirely male environment of Wall Street investment bankers, traders and salesmen. I was attracted to the unabashed machismo of that world. I was in a sense viewed by my superiors and myself as an experiment. Could a woman make it here? Through the years, however, I slowly began to lose myself and became deeply intellectually and politically unfulfilled.
Exactly how it happened I am unsure, but at the age of thirty-two I found myself back at graduate school pursuing a Ph.D in history with the idea that I could somehow combine the women and gender history that I was immersed in at Smith with the legal history that I learned at Harvard. I strongly believe that women’s legal history has the potential to seriously challenge and rewrite the traditional paradigms and stories of legal history. Currently, I work on the role of women and gender in the creation of public interest lawyering in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. More broadly, I argue that it was through concepts of gender that the nascent regulatory and welfare state of the early twentieth century came into existence. Although I have had tremendous support from some scholars, I am still often struck by the amount of resistance that I face when arguing that women and gender played important legal roles in the nineteenth century in a multitude of ways.
This summer, I had two remarkable experiences. First I participated in a three day international, multi-disciplinary workshop on Gender and the Welfare State in Onati, Spain. I felt blessed to be in the presence of such remarkable scholars devoted to employing feminist methodologies, and horrified as we collectively identified the erosion of the welfare state and its extraordinary affects on women world wide. From Spain I traveled to Guangzhou, China where I taught securities law to Chinese attorneys who were to spend the fall semester at Chicago-Kent Law School. To my amazement, twelve of my ten students were women. These women, all highly intelligent and ambitious, faced the same problems that women lawyers face in the West â€“ the difficulty of balancing work and family, traditional cultural expectations of being good wives and mothers, the disappearance of a state that provides for the welfare of its citizens, and the implications of living in a consumerist society in which ubiquitous advertisements tout the importance of youth, beauty, and hyper-femininity. Although teaching securities law, I secretly wondered what it would be like to discuss gender and the law.
At the beginning of each semester, I ask my students”What is feminism?”For me, feminism is a method of critical inquiry that insists upon asking what does it mean to be a man or a woman, how such concepts are produced, and the implications of such constructions. It also asks the broader question of why inequality exists and how it is created. Ultimately, I have come to realize that feminism at its best is a powerful form of humanism that propels us to aim for a utopian dream of universal well-being.