Feminist law prof glass ceilings

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Inspired by recent events at my own institution as well as conversations with other feminist law profs I’ve run into at recent conferences, here’s a pattern I see – wonder if others experience this.   One fem law prof summed it up with this office-door bumper sticker:  â€œIf silence is complicity, and engagement is insanity, what’s a girl to do?”

It seems to me that many strong, ambitious women legal academics end up withdrawing from their institutions, either by staying where they are  but withdrawing from almost all leadership or participation, or moving to another institution after getting hurt by exercising leadership at their original place – and they resign themselves to rather peripheral participation at the new institution.

After tenure, feminist law profs throw their hearts and souls into being good citizens of their institution, hoping to do their part to  help shape an environment that promotes excellence and diversity and humanity and other good values – and hoping to break the glass ceiling in law school leadership that has generally not included many women.     But their institutional good citizenship backfires:   they take policy positions, however diplomatic, accommodating and respectful, that threaten others with power, with the result that the feminist good citizen law profs get penalized and harassed in various subtle or not so subtle ways.     Or their time may simply get wasted, as they are rewarded for the leadership with ever-more committee chairs and endless meetings that give the appearance of faculty governance but simply cover over decisions made elsewhere by those who really have the power – and who tend to undo or undermine the hard work and bridge-building of the feminist law prof — either out of retaliation or incompetence and dysfunctional management.   Then the feminist law profs also get blamed for not doing as much teaching or scholarship as they might have without all the institutional administrative work — or sometimes the feminist law professor’s teaching loads get increased and support for scholarship gets withdrawn as part of the harassment and penalties for her institutional leadership.

Finally, the fem law prof gives up on institutional leadership and decides to protect her own personal and professional time, but at the often high cost of having to move  or, if personal ties make moving difficult,  having to stay in an unsupportive institution that devalues her contributions. I see so much wasted talent and energy in law schools.

-Anonymous Feminist Law Prof

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0 Responses to Feminist law prof glass ceilings

  1. tmcgaugh says:

    Here’s an interesting comment on the situation in which we find ourselves: I can’t even begin to figure out who this anonymous post came from. It fits the story of virtually every feminist law prof I know. So far, I don’t know anyone who has thrown in the towel and left the academy, but we all know lots of brilliant, courageous women who finally decide that it’s just not worth it to speak up. After all, despite what some colleagues may think, we need an income, too. At one point in my career, my own personal standard for professional satisfaction was, “I just want an office and for someone to assemble two classes of students I can teach. If I can get that, then I’ll walk away from my ridiculous ambition to make a difference and have a voice.”

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    I can say without giving anything away that it was written by somebody I admire a lot. It made me sad, but it also reminded me how important it is to support female colleagues. Certainly the support of other women law profs has made a huge positive difference in my life.

    Tracy, if you ever start feeling overwhelmed, reach out to some of the women in the blog roll here. They will help you if they can, I know they will.


  3. Kate Nace Day says:

    What do you say to the young? I think that is what matters.

    Legal education is what it is for me. I don’t matter as much as the women law students. For women law students, legal education is liminal. These are the only years when we can give them a sense of their place in history, teach them how to move from private to public, how to live the difference between dignity and cheerleading. How to find their ground – its texture, poetry, and lonlinesses – before they have to defend it.

    If you have that work, you always have space in the architecture of legal education.


  4. barbara burke says:

    Dear Kate Nace Day,

    As a student, I am overwhelmed by your words. I wish every female law student could read them. I will remind myself often of this statement.

  5. Ann Bartow says:

    Those are nice sentiments, Kate. How I hope they will not be used to bludgeon female professors who are not deemed to rise to that lofty level of selflessness.

  6. Kate Nace Day says:


    That was certainly was not my intention – not to “bludgeon”, not to lay claim to anything “selfless.” I cringe, a bit, at both words.

    Simply, it is one way – just one way – of making sense of the losses that seem to come with “being” feminist in legal education. I cannot transform “law” or “legal education”, not even my own institution. I can, however, illuminate the issues involved in surviving within the architecture of those failures.

    I know that the women law students make it easier – for me – to hold to my own dignity, daily.


  7. Ann Bartow says:

    You don’t think that your phrase “I don’t matter as much as the women law students” is a paean to selflessness?

    To fully appreciate my reaction maybe you need to read this:
    and the linked post, which, like the post above, supports what Nancy Levit has written here:

    My female colleagues and I spend a lot of time mentoring students in various ways, and mostly we love it, but we get overwhelmed, and wonder why so much more seems to be requested (and sometimes demanded) of us than of our male colleagues. The expectation by some law students that women law profs are there to serve them in ways that the men are not is a big problem for us, in my view. And your comment seems to feed that expectation.

  8. Kate Nace Day says:


    I feel a need to explain, expand perhaps.

    My comment about what matters to me in legal education follows the statement that “Legal education is what it is for me.” – that is, from my angle of vision, beyond transformation. I have made my stands in legal education, no doubt, but when all that fails/failed, I took those issues into the classroom.

    Not “mentoring”per se – with all the issues you rightly recognize – but, rather, constructing courses that cast a bright, critical light on legal education – and after JD – a light cast upwards from the documented experiences of women law students. Mari Matsuda’s phrase – which has been taken up in practically all outsider narrative – “from the bottom” comes to mind, here. Or, Catharine MacKinnnon’s “putting law into their own hands.” Or Arvonne Fraser’s lovely essay, Becoming Human, about the centuries of social, political and legal work transforming women’s humanity.

    In these courses, the women students create the last third of the work. They are mavelous, rigorous, creative and subversive – working sometimes with words, sometimes with photography and video.

    Thank you for the conversation,