Polly Morgan is a Lecturer in Law at the University of East Anglia School of Law. UAE is located in Norfolk, England. She recently answered these questions for Feminist Law Professors.
What is your educational and professional background?
I hold an undergraduate degree in law, a master’s degree in family law and policy, and also the professional qualifications to practise law as a solicitor. (In the UK, Law is an undergraduate degree followed by a further stage of more practical procedural training to become either a solicitor or a barrister.) I spent about eight years in practice as a family solicitor, which culminated in my co-founding my own specialist family law firm. However, in 2012 I was approached to teach family law at the University of East Anglia, and am now full-time faculty. I do not regret leaving practice, although I sometimes miss being obliquely rude in that way that lawyers can do so well.
What courses do you teach?
I teach two undergraduate modules, Child Law and Adult Relationships Law. Both are very popular options which look at different aspects of the state’s relationship to the family and in both we make use of a range of feminist perspectives. In my Adult Relationships Law module, for example, I draw on readings by fellow Feminist Law Professors Nancy Polikoff, Elizabeth Scott, Martha Fineman, and Nicola Barker, among others.
I also teach on two first year undergraduate modules, Law in Practice (which draws on my professional skills) and Legal Method, Skills, and Reasoning. As part of Law in Practice, I deliver some lectures on feminist legal theory. I have to begin my lectures by explaining what feminism is, and what it is not.
How does feminism influence your teaching/scholarship/service?
During my years in practice I represented both men and women in disputes over children or on divorce. I always did so from an inherently feminist perspective, in that I believe that fathers should take part in child care and that women’s lesser economic position is partly explained by parenting responsibilities falling mainly on them. One of the things we analyse in Child Law is why there is a perception that men are treated less favourably on matters relating to contact with their children, and we consider the extent to which this is traced back to the status quo of parenting arrangements during the parents’ relationship.
I also believe that women, post-divorce, should be able to become financially independent, but that this is not always possible and should not be at the expense of recognising what our Supreme Court has called ‘relationship-generated disadvantage’, i.e. that overwhelmingly during relationships women sacrifice their career and earning opportunities in a way that men do not. It was a proud moment when a male Conservative party candidate submitted an essay that called for the abolition of marriage on the grounds that it was oppressive to women.
I gain enormous pleasure from teaching and I like to believe that I get students to think, and that that thinking ability will enable them to question the status quo throughout their lives. There is a feminist student group at the university and in the city, and it is nice to see young women, and a few men, engaged and enthusiastic about feminist issues.
When did you first make a connection between feminism and the law?
My mother’s career opportunities were limited by gender: she wanted to go to university, but her parents sent her to secretarial college. She worked her way up from there. When I was about eleven, my parents swapped roles: my father gave up work outside the home to do part-time work that fitted around the child care and housework, and my mother went to work outside the home. So I grew up with the belief that traditional gender roles were not fixed and presented no barrier to me.
However, I don’t think I really identified as a feminist until after my first degree. It was at Master’s level that I first engaged with feminist legal scholars, for example Lenore Weitzman on post-divorce financial outcomes, and started to question the role of law. I began to see how law creates and/or perpetuates traditional gender roles and privileges the powerful. Law is not neutral, I tell the students.
What is the “feminist climate” at your school? Does your self-identification as a feminist impact the way you are perceived by students, colleagues or university administrators?
After working in a law firm which thought Mad Men was a guide to employee relations, the academic environment is a refreshing change. A (male) former head of department laid in a Law School stock of the feminist bestseller (yes, there is such a thing) How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, and emailed the entire law student body to invite them to borrow a copy: a valiant attempt to introduce students to the notion that feminism may have something to offer them. I am thus fortunate in that throughout the university there are feminist colleagues, although of course there are also those who believe in equality but do not identify that as being related to feminism. So it is necessary to educate colleagues as well as students.
What are you working on now?
I am trying to establish a Masters level module in Gender, Sexuality, and Law as part of an interdisciplinary Masters in Gender Studies. I am also updating my Adult Relationships course materials on same-sex marriage from ‘what if’ to ‘what now?’ following the introduction of same-sex marriage in England and Wales in 2014 as an alternative to civil partnerships.
I have also recently been appointed to lead the Law School’s Athena Swan submission. Athena Swan is a national programme that promotes women’s career progress in science, technology and medicine, but which has now been widened to non-STEMM subjects, including Law. As part of this, I will be analysing women’s progression and opportunities as faculty members and as students, and making recommendations to address some of the barriers they face.
Could you recommend at least one book/article/theorist to law students who are interested in feminism’s relationship to the law?
One thing I do give my students is Catharine Mackinnon’s 1989 Yale Law School address, in which she talks about the responsibility of those practising law to ‘hold yourselves accountable including for the uses to which you are put.’