Does Feminist Legal Theory Matter to the Schlesinger Library? Or Smith? Or Duke? Or Brown?

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Earlier this week, Ms. Magazine published an article (here) revealing the somewhat surprising decision of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University to decline the records of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project, begun at the University of Wisconsin in 1984 and still going strong at Emory University, under the leadership of path-breaking scholar Professor Martha Fineman.  Here‘s an excerpt from the story:

For close to four decades, Fineman’s Feminism and Legal Theory Project has hosted hundreds of conversations where feminist thinkers from across the United States and world have shaped and explored a wide range of concepts relating to women’s position within law and society. Those conversations delved into the “public nature of private violence,” the legal regulation of motherhood, feminism’s reception in the media, the relevance of economics to feminist thought, the complexities of sexuality, conflicting children’s and parental rights, the origins and implications of dependency and vulnerability, and the extent and nature of social responsibility. ***

Out of these conversations emerged the first anthology of feminist legal theory, At the Boundaries of Law, published in 1991. Many more followed, including over a dozen collections, numerous special issues of law reviews and hundreds of individual articles developing an interdisciplinary approach to feminist legal theory.

“In the Feminism and Legal Theory Project, we created what I called ‘uncomfortable conversations’—events where people who shared values, but disagreed about strategies and implementation, could talk,” said Fineman. “If there were areas of disagreement around collective objectives, you could talk about them and work through them hopefully in a constructive manner. That’s how actual progress can be made.” ***

Fineman recorded all of these conversations—a treasure trove of close to four decades of feminist intellectual history. But she is now struggling to find a home for this invaluable archive of the first generation of feminist legal thinkers.

“History has something to teach us. If we don’t collect the history and preserve it, then it can’t teach us,” said Fineman.

The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University is one of the few facilities that currently has the resources to care for the Fineman’s collection, but they told her that although they saw its value, they would not take her archives because they had other priorities. According to Fineman, a representative from Harvard told her: “We do see the real importance of the conferences, the ideas generated, and know it is an important resource for scholars. Unfortunately, it doesn’t align with our current strategic priorities, which involve a heightened focus on lives of women of color. We wouldn’t be able to commit the resources the archives need to its care.”

Others archives, including the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History at Smith College, the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University and the Pembroke Center Archives at Brown University, indicated they have other priorities (e.g. Smith is prioritizing papers related to sex workers’ rights while Duke “does not focus on the papers of legal scholars”) or they do not have the resources or technical capacity to house the collection.

“Some people are telling me the size of the collection is prohibitive,” said Fineman. “They talk about the necessity to digitize everything initially—but then explain that current technology will need ongoing updating, and this will all add to the cost, ironically decreasing the amount of material that they can actually collect.”

Read the full story here.

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