Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Feminism--or gender justice?

As the semester draws to a close, I'm left considering how feminism fits into a wider legal worldview, how feminism has shaped that world, and finally, where I fit into the world of feminism.

As I read the various viewpoints and opinions of feminist legal theorists this semester, I was also studying family law, estate law, and legal history. The overwhelming lesson I gained from the synthesis of these classes is how far we, as women, have come in the realm of law over the last few hundred years. It wasn't so long ago that Blackstone declared that women have no separate legal identity from their husbands and Lord Hale ruled that husbands could not be guilty of marital rape because "the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract." In that light, the feminist movement has accomplished incredible things, transforming the institution of marriage into a relationship of equals and securing unprecedented rights for women.

As I sit in King Hall's computer lounge and look around at my fellow students, these victories are not merely theoretical. There are just as many women here who aspire to be lawyers as there are men. We only have to struggle with the law insofar as we struggle to understand its complexities--there are no outright barriers, as there once was in this country, and we do not lose our legal status if we choose to marry.

Nonetheless, I am deeply aware of the inequalities still pervasive both within the legal communities and in our wider culture. Violence, sexism, wage inequalities, lack of adequate health care, and many other factors still disproportionally impact women. As I type this, our supposedly liberal Congress is pushing a health care reform bill that stigmatizes reproductive choice. Once again, women's rights are being sacrificed for a so-called common good that's starting to look like it's best for--who else?--insurance companies and rich stockholders.

Yet my studies of feminist legal theory this semester have only reaffirmed my feeling that feminism often suffers from tunnel vision. As a reproductive justice advocate, I'm often frustrated by the level of focus that pro-choice groups give abortion rights while ignoring other issues that impact the reproductive health and rights of LGBT people, people of color, and people with disabilities. Similarly, I believe that it is crucial for feminism to shift its focus from relatively privileged women to groups historically marginalized within or outright excluded from the feminist movement, such as trans women and sex workers.

To that end, I've found myself questioning not the basic tenets of feminism, but the way we talk about it. As a student of political language and issue framing, I believe that the way we frame ideas is crucial to the success of an ideological movement. For example, conservatives have attacked our system of civil law by framing limitations on recovery as "tort reform," and bolstered tax cuts for the richest Americans as "tax relief"--linguistic choices that have fueled their political success.

Recently, I've been playing with how framing might apply to the feminist movement, to help re-energize and re-focus a movement which has been subject to severe political backlash in recent years. In doing so, I've started to wonder if "feminism" is the best word for my personal political identity. What I consider my "feminism" blends with my allegiance to other social justice movements--anti-racism, disability rights, LGBT rights: human rights. Furthermore, when it comes to gender, I feel that one of the areas where change is most needed in our culture today concerns the rights of transgender, intersex, and genderqueer people--those who don't fit with the traditional gender binary that our culture still brutally enforces. I also think that the same gender intolerance that catastrophically impacts transgender people affects everyone negatively--male, female, and in between--limiting our individual freedoms to express our unique identities.

With all this in mind, and influenced by my background with the reproductive justice movement, I find the term "gender justice" intriguing. Without the gendered root "fem" in the term, I think that "gender justice" provides room for a wider-reaching and more inclusive movement, based like the RJ movement on a human rights model. Its use would emphasize that gender justice is not just about women (with the question that follows of what we mean when we say 'woman') but about everyone, regardless of what gender we identify as, are born as, or are seen as. The inclusion of "justice" in the term also makes the ideas more difficult to demonize--it's hard to make a stand against justice, or alter the term to a derogatory like "feminazi." While some feminists might feel that "gender justice" might dilute a necessary focus on women, I believe that framing issues of gender equality in this way would allow both activists and those who do not identify as feminists to view the issues in a new light.

I'd be interested to hear from others on this topic. Do you think it might be worthwhile to reframe feminism in the new millennium? Or would a shift to a gender justice model merely serve to confuse the issues of gender equality we still face?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Avatar": new technology, same old story

As a fan of science fiction and action movies, I was excited by the preview of James Cameron's new blockbuster Avatar. The movie looks amazing--a fascinating alien world and alien culture, a clever science fiction gimmick in the use of the "avatars" to allow the human main character to infiltrate the aliens. It appeared pretty revolutionary in its themes, with its protagonist joining forces with the aliens (the blue-skinned, cat-eyed, tribal Na'avi) to stop his fellow human's attempt to destroy the Na'avi's homeland in search of mineral resources. Anti-military, pro-environment, and anti-colonial--not your average Christmas blockbuster fare. Or so I thought.

After my initial impressed reaction to the trailer, however, I started to read more about the movie, and my excitement quickly died away. In "Avatar," the Repentant White Marine leads the Noble Savages to victory, marries the native princess, and becomes their chief, effectively appropriating their culture. Progressive? Hardly. It may challenge colonialism and champion the cause of environmentalism, but when it comes to race and gender, it fails on multiple levels. The story I wish this movie told was the story of Zoe Saldana's character, the Na'avi princess. Why does the movie assume she and her people needed a white Marine to save them? Is the story of a colonized people's resistance and a woman's leadership not interesting enough? Who makes these decisions, and why? When will white people stop making movies like this?

My frustration with this phenomenon was reinforced while trying to relax from intense finals studying the other day. I decided I wanted to watch a movie, but as I looked through my DVD collection, I discovered that very few of the movies I own are about women. Almost every cover features the faces of white men as the central focus. Many of the movies did have at least one major female character, but most of those had ONLY one such character (I call this the "only woman in the world" syndrome), preemptively failing the Bechdel Test.

Obviously I need to update my movie collection. But even if I did, how many movies are actually being made today about women? Particularly the kind of action/suspense/adventure movies that I love, as opposed to the terrible, formulaic romantic comedies that are made to appeal to my demographic?

I was discussing this with a friend of mine, a writer and director of independent films, and she pointed out, rightly, that all of her films feature female protagonists. I responded, "Well, that makes sense--you're a woman, so of course it makes sense that your work would reflect your experience." The problem with Hollywood is that there are still very few female directors or writers working on big films. My friend and I concluded that this happens because, for the most part, the producers who put their money into blockbuster films are wealthy white males who don't feel that stories by or about women are interesting enough to invest in. They look for films that appeal to them, that are about people like them. And the result is movies like "Avatar," which attempts to address the problems of colonization of native cultures and environmental exploitation, but only succeeds in being a flashy paean to white guilt and marginalizing the truly interesting story of a woman of color standing up against violent oppression.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is this the long-sought connection between the environment and women?

Don't miss Leslie Kaufman's story in the New York Times about Mustang Ranch, the brothel in northern Nevada, and the restoration of the Truckee River.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An Exciting Year for Women in CA

Thought this was a great article from SFGate.com, and 2010 will hopefully deliver some new female politicians in CA. The article details some of the frontrunners in several CA races, as well as typical barriers for women seeking higher office.

I hope some women amongst us at King Hall right now seek office during their careers - we need more women campaigning and winning!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A few simple rules...

This issue of cyber-bullying hasn't left my psyche just yet. I am still annoyed that there aren't better systems in place to protect young people and other vulnerable groups from abusive language on the internet. Today I was on a website and noticed that the comments section wasn't visible. Next to a label for "user comments" it said, "please read the rules before writing". The rules are simple: 1) no abusive language, 2) no posting links, 3) no double posting, 4) comments should be relevant to the link, 5) please do not post issues here, instead use the Forums, 6) comments may be removed by staff at any time/reason without warning or notification. Then you click "okay" and you can go ahead and comment without signing in, or registering, or doing anything too complicated.

So, how useful is this simple tool? Hard to say. But I can't help but feel that something as easy as a reminder to be civil and keep it on point might be enough to dissuade some of the more vile comments on sites like You Tube and Major Fail. And, I like the format; it's not a "terms and conditions" boiler plate deal where you scroll through minutes of text before getting to the button at the bottom. It's a small box with only six easy to read rules. If nothing else, it is a good start, and I was glad to see that at least this website was taking the initiative to try to curb abusive language, even though I'm sure they know section 230 will protect them from liability regardless of how well they monitor their site.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Remembering the dead

Today is the eleventh Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to honor those who have been murdered because of their gender identity.

I believe very strongly that equal rights and equal protection under the law for trans people is an important feminist issue. Gender-based violence is still endemic in our society, and it falls with the most vicious hatred upon those who dare to cross gender lines in order to be true to themselves. Many victims of transphobic violence are also people of color; many are sex workers, living and dying at the intersection of two incredibly marginalized identity groups. As noted by Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity:

A large percentage of trans people who are killed are prostitutes, and their murders often go unreported or underreported due to the public presumption that those engaged in sex work are not deserving of attention or somehow had it coming to them.

Some trans people are killed as the result of being denied medical services specifically because of their trans status, for example, Tyra Hunter, a transsexual woman who died in 1995 after being in a car accident. EMTs who arrived on the scene stopped providing her with medical care—and instead laughed and made slurs at her—upon discovering that she had male genitals.

The perpetrators of these murders often attempt to take refuge in the so-called gay/trans "panic defense": claiming they were so horrified to discover that a person they were sexually interested in was "really" the "wrong" sex that they killed him or her. The fact that this is still entertained as a valid reason for taking a human life underlines a deep and monstrous discomfort with gender and sexuality that feeds and is fed by gender essentialism and bias.

For those of us who are cisgendered feminists--women and men fortunate enough to be born and recognized as who we are, without having to fight for our basic gender identities--it is crucial for us to honor, include, and educate ourselves about the battles fought by our trans allies at the front lines of the gender wars. The stereotypical ideas about gender, the strict binaries that damage our self-image and fuel violence against our bodies, are the very same ideas that lead to the silencing, sexual abuse and murder of so many trans people each year. Even the media messages that teach us to hate our bodies do not spare trans people.

Unfortunately, many feminists continue to perpetuate transphobia, dismissing the perspectives of trans people and treating them as pariahs in the feminist movement. This is incredibly damaging to the movement and counterproductive to feminist goals of dismantling oppressive hierarchies based on gender. Instead, we should strive to be better allies, beginning our confrontation of societal privilege with our own.

Start now, by taking seven minutes of your time to watch this video and remember the dead. Our dead. Consider the courage of those who choose to live a life true to themselves under the ongoing threat of rape, torture, and death. Let it inspire your courage and your alliance for all people facing gender-based oppression, regardless of whether they possess the privilege of the "right" chromosomes or the "right" bodies. And never forget those who have died.

Every November I am devastated.
I count my people pulled up by the roots
From the gardens of their lives,
Not like harvest in the fullness of fruition
But even in a world of abundance
Torn as if worthless weeds yanked young and helpless.
Slashed, broken, trampled, tossed on a pile, debris.
More blows than necessary to kill,
Killed many times over
So their wildness will not return
And their wisdom will not spread,
Invasive to the status quo, the way things are.

--Bet Power, from a poem written for the Transgender Day of Remembrance held in Amherst, MA, November 20, 2007.

Thanksgiving: Women's work?

Inspiration for a post was failing me, but when I remembered that Thanksgiving is on the horizon, I started thinking about the traditional roles women play during the holiday. If your house is anything like mine, all the men sit in front of the television watching football while the women work in the kitchen preparing the meal. One blogger, whose family engages in the same ritual, tells an interesting story of her attempt to resist the practice in her own family, and her ultimate acceptance of it.

Dr. Sidney Mintz, an anthropologist from Johns Hopkins University, stated that the Thanksgiving meal "reawakens our attachment" to our early homes, and helps "define our cultural identity." But if that cultural identity is one of patriarchy and subjugation, maybe it isn’t one that we want to reawaken our attachment to. Thanksgiving might be the perfect time to challenge the gendered division of labor around the house, especially if the holiday brings your extended family together.

Dr. Mintz suspects that traditional gender roles are no more entrenched at Thanksgiving than at other times. My personal experience adheres to this notion in that my mother did nearly all the cooking in our home throughout the year, with the interesting exception of the barbeque, which my father handled exclusively. In an About.com article, the creator of a website called “Men in Aprons” explains that barbequing turkey, rather than cooking it in the oven, can be a tool to entice men to take a more active role in the preparation of the Thanksgiving meal. I suppose that without the use of the barbeque, there really wouldn’t be any other reason for a man to participate. The fact that barbequing is a “male” job is an interesting phenomenon in itself. It seems almost too easy to attribute it to some sort of vestigial connection to our hunter-gatherer past, but what else would explain it? Maybe the involvement of fire makes it a more dangerous activity, and therefore the province of men, but I won’t digress further.

The author of the same article tongue-in-cheekly offers a warning that reading about a man who actually helps in the kitchen may cause you to “swoon in envy.” Obviously the article is meant to be taken fairly light-heartedly, but it certainly touches upon some pretty sexist notions. Why is it taken for granted that men do not need to help around the house at any point during the year, let alone during a labor intensive holiday like Thanksgiving?

The answer to that question is debatable. Traditionally, women have been predominately socialized to fill the role of caretaker, but the causes of that process are complex. Regardless of whether the female-as-caretaker role is purely the product of patriarchal subjugation, biological sex differences, or a combination of the two, how should feminists respond? If your family Thanksgiving conforms to the fairly sexist tradition of women doing all the work, should you make a fuss, or go with the flow?

Ultimately, it would probably be best to try and calculate as closely as you can your chances of successfully persuading your family members to change their behavior. If your family is quite entrenched in their thinking and you are confident that any efforts to point out the sexism of the traditional Thanksgiving division of labor will simply engender ill will, maybe just letting it go is the more utilitarian choice. Some people’s attitudes will not be changed, and fighting them may ruin the holiday for everyone else. But if your family and friends are flexible enough to at least question their behavior, the argument may be worth it. Even though the majority of younger Americans believe in egalitarian relationships between men and women, traditional gender roles remain ingrained in practice and ideology.

Although arguing about who does the work on Thanksgiving may seem trivial, our behavior during the holidays places our everyday behavior in sharp relief. If men realize why it is unfair for the women in their family to do the work on Thanksgiving, maybe that understanding will spill out into their everyday lives. Women as caretakers might no longer be the default. That would be something we could all be thankful for.

Female Criminality

Until the mid-1970s, women who commit crime was a subject unstudied and rarely acknowledged by dominant the field of criminology. Since then, the field has opened up considerably and some excellent and broad work has been done on the types of crimes women commit, and why they commit them (see scholars such as Carol Smart, Joanne Belknap, Kathleen Daly). Men remain the majority of people arrested and incarcerated; when we think of the prison crisis we usually imagine men in horrific and overcrowded prisons. However, the question of female criminality has gripped me; there are so many ways in which feminist theory intersects with criminality, yet I find that it remains a small area of discussion within larger feminist discourse.

Working at a public defender’s office during my 2L summer, I was immediately drawn to many of the women who came into the office. Colloquially, what became apparent was the number of (young) women who had children and were the head of their households, and the types of crimes they were committing. Most of the crimes had to do with economics; petty (misdemeanor) drugs sales, prostitution, petty theft. The economic marginalization theory essentially posits that women are more apt to commit crime when their economic well being is low or on the decline. From 10 weeks of basic observation of a busy, urban criminal court, this seems to me an accurate and real indicator of female criminality at the misdemeanor level.

One of the most stunning stories I heard was of a mother of three teenage children who had been arrested for embezzlement (several hundred dollars) from her job as a cashier at a big box store. She had stolen the money over the course of several days to pay for her daughter’s funeral; her daughter had been murdered by her boyfriend the previous week and this woman did not know how she was going to pay for the funeral. The absurdity of her situation struck me on so many levels; a woman working to support her children has no extra funds for an emergency in her life (her position at a big box store reminds me of the struggle of Barbara Ehrenrich and her co-workers in Nickel and Dimed) and she was now facing criminal charges for being poor and without resources.

Though I feel particularly drawn towards women in the criminal justice system, I also feel that an understanding of economics and poverty is essential to analyzing criminality. There are so many ways in which the criminal justice system affects the lives of poor people; through frequent interactions with the police, through probation, through friends and family in incarceration. The list goes on. There is something about the body of a poor woman (and often times a poor woman of color) that becomes a subject of the state and police power. Female criminality and the paternalism of the criminal justice system to me represent some of the most intense forms of patriarchy. The criminalization of prostitution is just one example; whether women choose to be sex workers or feel compelled to the work for economic gain or survival, they are patronized by men and then punished by a patriarchal system that says “we’ll use you, and then make you a criminal after we’re done.”

Clearly, the field of female criminality is much too large for one blog post, but I do think that the criminal justice system has a stark effect on the lives of women and I hope that this becomes an area of law that starts to become a larger part of feminist legal theory discourse.

How many women does breast cancer cost?

This week, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) released new recommendations for mammogram screenings. The most dramatic of the recommendations states women in their 40s should no longer receive the screenings and women 50-74 should receive screenings every two years.

The reasoning behind the new recommendations is contrary to the long-standing position taken by the American Cancer Society, which recommends women begin receiving mammograms at age 40 (annually for women over 50). The USPSTF explained its new recommendations by saying many women experience “false positives, anxiety, and unnecessary biopsies as a result of the test.”

The USPSTF justification is not only troubling - it is condescending. The agency is taking the position that because women in their 40s may experience unnecessary anxiety, they should not be screened at all? This says nothing about the anxieties of being diagnosed with breast cancer, a diagnosis almost 200,000 women are expected to receive before the end of 2009. It also has no comment to the fact that early detection of breast cancer is critical in lowering women’s risk of death from the disease. Beyond all of that, it implies women are too fragile to deal with the anxieties themselves, and therefore need “protection” from the process completely.

The data proffered by the agency is essentially a cold, economic analysis:

“The task force acknowledges that mammography saves lives among women in their 40s. But it estimates that more than 1,900 women have to be screened for a decade to save a single life. Among women in their 50s, when breast cancer is more common, only about 1,300 women have to be screened; among women in their 60s, only 377.”

I am not naive to the fact that cost-benefit analysis plays a role in major agency decisions, particularly in allocation of resources, but this is disturbing. Dr. Otis Brawley, Chief Medical Office for the American Cancer Society, shares my concern. "With its new recommendations, the [task force] is essentially telling women that mammography at age 40 to 49 saves lives; just not enough of them.”

This news was followed quickly by a release this morning recommending young women push back the age at which they begin receiving cervical exams. Dr. Cheryl B. Iglesia, the chairwoman of a panel that developed the guidelines, assured the New York Times the releases are not political. However, that certainly does not mean the application will not be. While a universal health care package can mean valuable screenings for the uninsured, continued release of materials like this could mean a reduction in coverage for preventative care.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40s. There was previously no history of the disease in our family. Her doctor found it during a routine screen, so early that my mom couldn’t even feel it when her doctor pointed it out. However, if given another year, doctors predicted her survival rate would have been less than 25% what it was at the time it was discovered. This scenario may not be the most common, but it is a reality. Even though the decision to begin mammogram screenings remains a doctor-patient conversation and it appears women could still elect to begin screening at 40, what are some other implications of these regulations? Is the cost-benefit analysis playing an appropriate role in these decisions? Perhaps the most difficult question, should factors apart from finances be considered in determining how many women a regulation “costs”?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sex verification test reveals Caster Semenya is “innocent”

This August, Caster Semenya astounded sports fans by running 800 meters in one minute and 55.45 seconds. Most track races are won by fractions of a second. At eighteen-years old, Semenya beat the second place finisher by more than two seconds. Watch the race here (fast-forward the clip to 3:00).

Instead of celebrating Semenya’s incredible performance, the press focused on speculations about Semenya’s sex and gender. For instance, this New York Times article discussed Semenya’s “male characteristics,” like her “husky voice” and “muscular” physique before it mentioned her record-breaking time. Responding to the press’ speculations, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), confirmed that “Ms. Semenya was undergoing sex determination testing to confirm her eligibility to race as a woman.”

After three months, the IAAF announced that Semenya is “innocent.” This means that Semenya will keep her gold medal and prize money. However, “the question of whether she remains eligible to compete as a woman remain[s] uncertain.” Out of respect for Semenya’s privacy, the IAAF will keep the results of her sex verification test confidential. To read an article announcing Semenya’s “innocence,” click here.

So does the IAAF’s announcement vindicate Semenya? Absolutely not! Fellow runner and reporter, Jill Greer calls this story a “Greek tragedy of Sophoclean proportions.” Greer admonishes spectators who “snicker or sneer at an athletic woman because she doesn't look like a Barbie doll.” Questioning Semenya’s sex “simply because of how she looked or how low her voice was” does more than undermine her athletic performance. Thanks to speculations about her sex, Semenya’s “entire life has been made the subject of intense public debate, cruel jokes and salacious rumor-mongering.” To read Greer’s blog entry, click here. To see clips of Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman making fun of Semenya, click here and here.

Semenya is not the first athlete to endure the indignity of a sex verification test. In 1985, Maria Patino qualified to compete as a hurdler for Spain in the World Games. Before the competition started, the IAAF gave every female a chromosome test. To Patino’s surprise, her test revealed that she had XY chromosomes. Rather than disqualifying her, officials allowed Patino to fake an injury and withdraw from the competition. Neverthless, Patino was devastated. Years later, Patino compared the experience to being raped. More recently, Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of her gold medal from the 2006 Asian Games after failing a sex verification test. Devastated, Soundarajan attempted suicide.

The IAAF admits that its current “Gender Verification Policy” is “far from completely resolved,” and insists that it is still searching for “an acceptable and equitable solution.” Click here to read the IAAF’s current “Gender Verification Policy.”

If the IAAF is sincere about developing a more “equitable” gender verification policy, I hope it will consider the following suggestions...

(1) This is not a “gender” verification policy. The IAAF is testing an athlete’s “sex,” not her “gender.” Change the name.

(2) If the IAAF wants the results of the test to be “confidential,” it needs to ensure that the every part of the testing process is “confidential.” The public can easily infer the results of a sex verification test depending on whether or not the IAAF deems the athlete eligible to compete. Challenges to an athlete’s eligibility and subsequent sex verification testing should be handled privately.

(3) Do not use the term “innocent” to convey that an athlete passed her sex verification test. It equates atypical sexual development with “guilt.”

(4) Until the IAAF has a clear idea of what makes an athlete “female,” it should not disqualify any athlete with atypical sexual development. Athletes like Maria Patino and Santhi Soundarajan passed some sex verification tests and failed others because the IAAF kept changing its definition of “female.”

(5) Consider the possibility that there are some athletes who are neither male nor female. Ideally, the IAAF will find a way to include these athletes. If the IAAF cannot include these athletes, it should still treat them with dignity and respect.

I invite bloggers to add their own suggestions, and look forward to reading your responses.

Life after law school, mama-style

For me, life after law school might not be as glamorous as I might have imagined when I was a teenager. I have been a mama to a little girl since I was 21. Between then and now, I have experienced a wide range of lifestyles: from near-destitute to wealthy to happily in-debt; from single mother to custody fighter to wife of an attorney-to-be; and finally from stay-at-home mother to perpetual law student (it will have taken seven years of starts and stops!) to law school graduate in the worst economy of our generation.

Maybe I am asking for too much but I still “want it all.” I want to see my daughter and my husband for most of everyday, have a small tribe of toddlers who will love me madly in my postpartum-free bliss, spend the majority of each day stitching sundresses and unicorn costumes, sleep for more than a few hours a night—oh, and I want to provide for my family and live out a few burning dreams and ambitions, too. Let’s not forget my husband, lest he think he’ll bear the burden of working 1900 billable hours next year and be an absentee parent to the Toddler Tribe. I want him to be part of the Have-It-All, too.

Having been raised by a stay-at-home mother who was also an eccentric artist, I have somewhat of a fanciful notion of where motherhood fits in the work-life balance. Motherhood is the trumping factor: When I should be writing memorandums, I am teaching my daughter to play guitar or helping her to make chandeliers out of foil for her princess castle built with sheer walls of mosquito netting. I seem to have no problem spending an afternoon crocheting a scarf and cooking dinner from scratch for my family, then staying awake until the wee hours of morning to work…and repeating the cycle a few times a week. No sitters, no nannies, no after-care—but a life built with a near obsession for hands-on motherhood. It’s what I grew up with, so it’s what I know.

But it sets me up for some heartbreak as a job-seeker. To be honest, I don’t like the world outside of motherhood all that much. I’ve lived it. It’s Working Mommy Land – rife with guilt and depression, and never quite the perfect balance of ambition, nurturance, and fulfillment. I want to be a lawyer, without my daughter ever feeling like I left the house. Is this just a pipe dream?

Finding the right work-life balance is particularly important to me as a mother. Having had full custody of my daughter since her birth, I have never quite adjusted to the 50% custody arrangement of the past two years. Trying to feel like a whole mother with only half the time has been impossibly difficult, and it makes me somewhat of a time-maximizing, multi-tasking, sleep-deprived nut: I confess that I am not a law school gunner, but I am a hopelessly devoted mommy gunner.

Can my devotion to parenthood survive the legal workplace? Do I have to choose the all-or-nothing route to being an attorney, or is there some kind of warm, fuzzy in-between?

Parenthood, workplace identities, and covering

Most people have experienced the pressure to conform to the working identity, a term coined by Mitu Gulati and Devon W. Carbado. The working identity is the identity to which we all consciously conform and perform in the workplace in order to earn respect or stay in the game. In addition, most have probably felt the need to cover, a term coined from Kenji Yoshino’s discourse on covering. Covering is the concept that we surrender our individuality as a necessary act of assimilation, as Yoshino describes in the following clip:

The idea of sustaining the working identity by covering can apply to parenthood in the workplace. Like people of color being pressured into “acting white,” I think it is safe to make the argument that mothers and fathers similarly feel pressured into “acting unattached” or “professional,” which implicitly discourages “family-focused” behavior. Parents are always at risk of revealing too much devotion to something outside the workplace.

The most common consequence that we fear from revealing our true identities is that we will be “found out” and lose our jobs or be demoted in some way. For instance, if a woman becomes pregnant at a law firm and embraces motherhood, she may involuntarily be put on the so-called “Mommy Track” at law firms. Covering and identity performance often require lying about home life or minimizing issues at home to avoid losing professional credibility.

In recent years, however, internet blogs authored by parents have opened the discourse on parenting into the mainstream, particularly the “Mommy Blogs.” There are even “law mommy blogs” that discuss the prevalence of Working Mommy Guilt or hilarities of juggling law careers and children. It has become both acceptable and controversial to be candid about the realities of parenting life, as the following clip on mommy blogger Heather B. Armstrong illustrates:

While it is a step forward to push the realities of parenthood into mainstream discourse, will there ever be a day when it is perfectly acceptable to confess that you are late to a meeting because your beloved child had an irreparable, gargantuan tantrum twenty seconds before you were about to leave the house? Will workplaces adapt to family life, or will professional expectations continue be the anchoring point of “work-life balance”?

The flex-time and part-time lawyer: do they really exist?

The concept of being a flex-time lawyer is becoming more of a reality in recent years, redefining the recent paradigm shift of the “power lawyer” mother and the stay-at-home dad. We do not yet know whether the recession will promise more part-time or flex time jobs, but there is a chance that such a poor economic climate could trigger major organizational changes.

Surprisingly enough, part time positions are available but under-utilized. Though nearly 98% of law firms say they offer part-time schedules, The National Association for Law Placement reported that only 5.4 percent of attorneys were working part time in 2007. (On a side note, nearly all associates (91.2%) and the majority of partners (71.2%) who worked part time in 2007 were women).

There are some downsides to flex-time positions and part-time positions, which have been dubbed as mommy-tracks in disguise. In a lawjobs.com article on a “part time” female lawyer who became partner, an attorney mother describes the reality of her “part time” schedule at a corporate law firm as 6 A.M. to 2:55 P.M.—still totaling up to a 45 hour work week. According to the attorney, she justified prioritizing her family life by saying, “I am an A-minus attorney. But I am an A mother.”

In addition to the illusion of what "part-time" is, flex-time or part-time status may compromise pay and health insurance. I know an attorney who was asked to be partner, but asked if she could take a year of “part time hours” in order to spend time with her family, before committing to the partner position. When she was “part time” she said the law firm revoked her health insurance (because no part time employees received health coverage at the firm) and grossly miscalculated part-time to mean “4 out of 5 days a week.” Dissatisfied by the firm's unfair practices, she jumped ship from the firm and began an independent consulting company, instead of returning to full-time private law life as partner.

Where to find flex-time and part-time positions

Apparently, it takes some detective work and determination to find a flex-time or part-time attorney position. The first option is to learn by example, by researching attorney profiles on sites such as Ms. JD to see how others have achieved work-life balance.

Attorney and author Julie Tower Pierce has recently written a book called Staying at Home, Staying in the Law, which describes ways in which both women and men can work as lawyers with appropriate work-life balance or re-enter law after taking time off to raise children. Pierce also keeps a blog called Darling Hill, entirely devoted to the concept of flexible, part-time and contract lawyering – that even posts flexible attorney jobs currently available on the market.

The American Bar Association Journal reported that an increasing amount of young attorneys are redefining “the office” by “building reputations, then deftly leveraging their clout to get the flexibility they need.” The concept of part-time law practices for solo attorneys, freelance lawyering and family friendly law firms are also getting some press in the legal community.

If flex-time is not quite creating the proper work-life balance for parents, job-seeking parents might try to find companies or firms who have adopted a results-only philosophy. Culture X has developed a business model called ROWE (Results Oriented Work Environment) that allows an entire company to function without face-time requirements, such that employees work from anywhere, anytime – so long as the work gets done and employees stay happy. Developers of the ROWE model Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson have been advocating their results-only model with their book, aptly titled Why Work Sucks and How To Fix It.

Above all, it seems that parents in law school who are going the non-traditional route in the marketplace may have some extra work to do – but it is somewhat of a relief to know that “family-friendly” is becoming a “buzz word” in the legal community. It was a really long time coming, but it seems as though there are a few glimmers of hope that attorney parents may be a (baby) step closer to “having it all.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


While filling out a professor evaluation the other day, I noticed that the evaluation wasn’t completely anonymous. The form didn’t ask for a name, class year, age, or area of legal emphasis, but it did ask for each student evaluator to bubble in one of two gender boxes. At first, I was irritated. What does it matter to professors whether I’m a man or a woman when evaluating their mastery of the course subject? I began wondering how the information collected is used by the university, the law school, and professors? Is the gender box intentionally on the evaluation form, or, like references to the "powder room," is it just an relic of more sexist times past? I indignantly left the gender box blank.

Then, I came to the question regarding the instructor’s respect for students, and the gender box struck a different chord with me. With the difference in the way men and women experience and succeed in law school, maybe the gender box really is important on professor evaluations. The Socratic method has received much criticism from women. In their book, Becoming gentlemen: Women, law school, and institutional change, (1997), Guinier, Fine, and Balin call the legal Socratic method "ritualized combat" that is harmful and counterproductive to the education and well-being of women law students.

Since then, I have searched in vain for information about how King Hall uses professor evaluations. Who reads them? Is the information recorded? If a professor receives lackluster comments, does the administration take note of which students are finding fault with the particular professor, and why? Female professors have had a rough time historically with receiving subpar, and even brutal evaluations from students, especially male students. Maybe the gender box is present so professors and/or administrators can evaluate the gender bias against faculty in student evaluations. It’s my concern that the gender issues on both sides of the academic coin are noticed.

Days later, and after reading about UC Davis' theoretical use of student evaluations, I find myself asking the logical follow-up questions: During the tenure process, what weight does the university and/or law school give the poor evaluations? What about good evaluations? Evaluations with no comments beyond the filled-in bubbles? Is the gender box used in the analysis at all? Is anyone else concerned with the fact that the only piece of personal information requested is gender? That little box, and all the mystery it holds, sure makes me uncomfortable.