Professor Jane Larson died December 24, 2011, at her home in Madison, Wisconsin. She was a noted feminist legal historian on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin Law School. Colleagues around the country are expressing their shock and sorrow at this loss (see links below). In her writing, Jane championed the rights of women and of the poor and disenfranchised, drawing on empirical, legal, and philosophical sources.
Her work in feminist legal history shed light on current gender issues as well as on past struggles. As she wrote in her 1993 Columbia Law Review article, “Women Understand So Little, They Call my Good Nature Deceit”: A Feminist Rethinking of Seduction:
Laws can be reformed and still have little power to remedy injury if lawyers, judges, and juries cannot appreciate the harm a victim says she has suffered, and remain stubbornly unwilling to dignify her experience with an effective and responsive legal remedy. …For at its root, a discussion of [gendered legal problems such as] seduction calls for an understanding of our cultural vision of men, women, and their relationship through sex to the society. If we can uncover the sources of our reluctance to dignify the voices of the sexually injured, we can begin to strip our culture’s seduction narrative of its fatalism and hypocrisy, and thereby return the sexual choices made by men and women to a world where change and reform are imaginable. (p. 472)
Jane Larson could understand the harm of others, because she possessed a unique capacity for empathy. As the Roman playwright Terence might have put it, nothing human was alien to her. And she possessed a unique incapacity for fatalism and hypocrisy. While the combination of capacity and incapacity often made her life harder for her than for us less gifted mortals, it fueled her remarkable achievements on behalf of those who society had, unnecessarily, and unjustifiably, harmed.
Other writings in feminist legal scholarship included her pathbreaking book with Linda Hirshman, Hard Bargains: The Politics of Sex (1999), numerous articles, and key contributions to the historians’ amicus briefs in William L. Webster v. Reproduction Health Service and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Washington v. Casey, a case which ultimately upheld the reasoning of Roe v. Wade. It was typical of Jane that, while Hirshman put the philosophical skeleton around Hard Bargains, Jane’s historical record of real peoples’ suffering and activism was what gave the book its heart. Her friend and colleague Guadalupe Luna writes:
With a heavy heart and much sadness I report the passing of my querida amiga Jane “Juanita” Larson on December 24, 2011. Jane was a widely recognized and much respected feminist scholar but she was also active in a number of Latina/o activities and projects. She was a generous scholar and was extremely supportive of so many trying to enter as well as stay in the academy. (http://nuestrasvoceslatinas.com)
Jane’s compassionate vision was apparent in her scholarly and activist work on law in the colonias (rural settlements along the U.S.-Mexico border), where she documented, analyzed, and attempted to address the suffering of marginalized populations. Her research combined fieldwork with legal analysis and practical interventions designed to give colonias residents title to their land.
Jane was 53 years old, and is survived by her son Simon and her sister Jennifer, both of whom were very dear to her heart. A devoted jazz aficionado, she asked for Coltrane instead of an epidural while in labor. Those of us who knew her will always remember the depth of her thought and of her caring.
University of Wisconsin Law School announcement, here
Published obituary, Madison.com, here
Guadalupe Luna, at Nuestras Voces Latinas, here
Al Brophy, at The Faculty Lounge, here
Howard Wasserman, at Prawfsblawg, here
Diane Marie Amann, at IntLawGrrls, here
Kevin Johnson, at Immigration Law Profs Blog (here)
Dan Rodriguez, at Northwestern Law School’s Dean’s Blog, here
Brian Leither, at Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports, here
In January, there will be an extended posting on Jane on the New Legal Realism blog, here.
-Linda Hirshman and Beth Mertz