Jan. 6, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 9

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    Becker: Providing a feminist perspective on law

    Although courses in feminist theory expanded across college and university campuses during the 1980s and into the '90s, legal textbooks examining the law through a feminist perspective have been rare. Mary Becker, Professor in the Law School, is changing that situation with the publication of "Cases and Materials on Feminist Jurisprudence: Taking Women Seriously," a book that explores both feminist theory and specific legal questions that are important to women. The book was released in December.

    "Feminist Jurisprudence," co-written with Cynthia Grant Bowman of Northwestern and Morrison Torrey of DePaul, is a collection of the most recent case decisions affecting women as well as essays and critiques of various approaches to feminism.

    "The book gives readers an introduction to some of the major theoretical issues in legal feminism and exposes them to many practical cases and real-world issues," Becker said. "We also included the perspectives of many women of different classes, races and sexual orientations."

    Although some legal scholars still argue that feminist legal analysis is marginal, less analytically rigorous and less important than other areas of the law, Becker and her co-authors counter this view with a detailed analysis of feminist legal theory on constitutional equality, marriage and divorce, violence against women, women and children, sexual harassment, pornography, sexuality, politics and education. Much of this legal theory has been developed only in the past 10 years.

    "During the early '80s there were no legal textbooks that contained much in the way of feminist theory and there was no feminist analysis of rape or consent standards," Becker said. "Around 1985, we saw an explosion of feminist theory in many academic areas, but there still wasn't much feminist analysis in law-school classes and there were few female law professors at the prestigious schools.

    "In 1987, Susan Estrich wrote 'Real Rape,' which was one of the first critiques of the consent standard in rape that comes from within a law school. Because of the work of feminist legal scholars, nobody can teach about rape today without raising these consent questions and asking whether or not traditional standards are a male view of what rape is, instead of an unbiased view."

    Many feminist ideas that seemed radical in the 1970s -- such as equal pay for women performing the same work as men -- are now widely accepted and undisputed. Yet Becker contends that women still face many problems that are embedded in the social fabric.

    "There is still much work to be done for women in academia and in the general society. There's a glass ceiling in business, women are not politically represented to the degree their numbers indicate, and women professors are not well represented in elite schools despite the growing numbers of undergraduate females."

    Despite the challenges that remain, Becker is optimistic about the future. "I think the feminist movement continues to accomplish a lot -- one way this can be seen is with young women who agree with many of the things feminists have worked for, but who often say that they aren't feminists. In a way that shows how far feminism has come -- these women couldn't expect the world to be as they see it except for what feminism has achieved."

    One clear sign of the changes brought about by feminism is the number of women in the current first-year class. The Law School's 1993 entering class is 46 percent female. It remains to be seen, however, how this will affect the teaching of feminist theory, Becker said.

    "It is true in general that having more women in law school increases the demand for feminism, because many women entering law school today learned feminism in whatever fields they were coming from as undergraduates and expect to hear it in law school. But although some schools are looking for feminists, many women who go into teaching worry about classifying themselves as feminists," she said.

    Becker, who received her B.A. from Loyola University in 1969, taught elementary school before entering the Law School. She received her J.D. from the University in 1980. After clerking for Judge Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and for Justice Lewis Powell of the U.S. Supreme Court, Becker joined the Chicago faculty in 1982.

    Becker will teach the first course based on her new book at Harvard next fall. She hopes to teach the course at Chicago in the spring quarter of 1995. Although her book has just been released, Becker already has ideas on how she will update the text for future editions, and she is considering the possibility of an additional book featuring a feminist analysis of topics covered in first-year law-school classes, including contracts, torts and civil procedure.

    "In academia in general, and the legal field in particular, feminism is incredibly strong," she said. "The pervasive theme in this book is that there are many types of feminism, and we can use these theories, not just as a single tool, but as a battery of weapons to gain a more profound and inclusive understanding of equality."

    -- Charles Whitt