Interview with Feminist Law Prof Martha Fineman, Founder of the Feminist Legal Theory Project

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For more than 25 years, Feminist Law Professor Martha Fineman (Emory) has been one of legal feminism’s leading voices.  She is a mentor and role model to countless other scholars.  Professor Fineman’s publications include  The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency, The New Press (2003); “Taking Children’s Interest Seriously,”  Nomos; “Why Marriage?”  University of Virginia Journal of Law and Social Policy (2001);  The Neutered Mother, and The Sexual Family and other Twentieth Century Tragedies, Routledge Press (1995).  Her recent article The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition appears in the Yale Journal on Law and Feminism (and is available here).

Feminist Law Professor Martha Fineman (Emory) recently spoke to Bridget Crawford about the founding of the Feminist Legal Theory Project in 1984.

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Who were your mentors in law school?

I worked as a research assistant for Stan Katz and Harry Kalven while a student, but I can’t say that they were”mentors”in any significant way, although I greatly admired them.   When I was a second-year student at the University of Chicago Law School the only woman law professor I knew – Soia Mentschikoff – left to become Dean at the University of Miami.   The few women students at the school petitioned requesting that another woman be hired.   We were told that”there is not a woman in the country qualified to be a law professor at the University of Chicago.”

What was your initial inspiration for starting the Feminism and Legal Theory Project?

My tenure decision at the University of Wisconsin was delayed a year when one of the [liberal] senior professors pulled his letter of support from my file because I published an article arguing that formal equality was not the model to use for family law reform.   He was outraged that I rejected liberal precepts.   He later changed his mind and apologized.   Another colleague condescendingly told me that even if I questioned formal equality he knew I didn’t want any”special treatment”simply because I was the single mother of four children.   I told him I didn’t want special treatment, but perhaps deserved some recognition that I had managed to meet all the tenure requirements while balancing family circumstances that probably would have defeated many others on the faculty (I meant him, with his stay-at-home wife who not only raised the children, but also edited his papers).   Those and other encounters taught me there was a real need for a supportive environment to encourage feminist work, particularly of the kind that challenged traditional assumptions and received wisdom, and was based on women’s lived experiences.

What were some of the obstacles that law professors encountered when they wanted to offer”Women and the Law”courses, and were the obstacles different when law professors wanted to shift into offering”Feminist Legal Theory”courses?

I don’t know what the generation before mine encountered when they introduced Women and the Law courses.   Feminist theory, because it is inherently critical theory and analyses the assumptions and beliefs underlying the structures and ideology of society, predictably encounters resistance from those satisfied with the basic arrangements and distribution of power, privilege, and authority.   One set of persistent problems has been the tendency of mainstream scholars either to ignore feminist theorists working in their areas or to use our insights and arguments in their own work without giving us credit.   I once started to do an annotated version of a much touted constitutional law scholar’s work – supplying all the footnotes to feminists that he had left out – but quickly became overwhelmed.   I think Critical Race scholars have the same problem with gaining recognition for their work.   Ironically, we are marginalized as individuals within the academy at the same time that our best and most insightful ideas are too often appropriated by those who then take credit for them.

At a time when so many law journals, for example, are changing their names to include”gender”in the place of”women,”has anyone ever suggested changing the name of the FLT Project?   What is the importance of using the word”feminism”in describing our work?

Gender is one of the primary categories that feminist theory interrogates, but I think it is important to keep the political edge implied by the term feminist.   All sorts of people study gender – sociologists, demographers, advertisers – but feminist gender analysis is anchored in social critique and concerned with power, privilege, and justice.

What do you see as the relationship between feminist legal theory and law and society scholarship?   Do they have different agendas?

There are different strains of feminist legal theory and different agendas for different people within feminism and within law and society broadly conceived.   The Feminism and Legal Theory Project has always been interdisciplinary and broadly focused.   My brand of feminist theory shares with the Law and Society movement the basic premise that law is not only a product of social and political relationships, but in turn also profoundly shapes those relationships, occasionally even provoking transformation.   Understanding how changes in society set in motion a dynamic and symbiotic interaction with law and legal intuitions is what is interesting to me as a feminist legal scholar.

If you hadn’t become a law professor, what path might your career have taken?

If I hadn’t had four children to support I would probably would have been a starving artist.

What non-books are you reading now?

Right now I have little time for reading non-law related books.   I am finishing writing a book for Princeton University Press tentatively titled The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition and editing two collections from the Feminism and Legal Theory Project – What is Right for Children: The Competing Paradigms of Religion and Human Rights and Feminist and Queer Legal Theory: Intimate Encounters, Uncomfortable Conversations – both will be out with Ashgate in the spring.

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The Feminist Legal Theory Project marks its 25th anniversary with a conference at Emory.  More information on that conference is available here.

-Bridget Crawford

This entry was posted in Feminist Law Prof Profile, Feminist Legal Scholarship, Upcoming Conferences. Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to Interview with Feminist Law Prof Martha Fineman, Founder of the Feminist Legal Theory Project

  1. Ann Bartow says:

    This is fantastic, Bridget – thank you!

  2. Francine Lipman says:

    This interview is very well done. Engaging, interesting, informative and intellectual . . . move over Larry King.

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