Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: Equal: Women Reshape American Law by Fred Strebeigh

Found via: Amerlia Bloomer Project

Oh (wo)man, I wish I'd had this book during those middle school classes on the Supreme Court!

Strebeigh's book takes an exhaustive look at, as the title says, how women have changed American law, as plaintiffs, lawyers and judges. There are five sections in the book, each examining a different aspect of laws that women have helped shape or reshape, and the years in which most of the major progress was made: scrutiny (how closely does the supreme court need to look at sex discrimination cases?), pregnancy (do employers discriminate against pregnant women?), lawyering (the problems women lawyers faced between 1968 and 1984), harassment (defining sexual harassment), and violence (domestic violence cases). Important cases are discussed in detail, and Strebeigh plays it all very fairly: when discussing the allegations in a case, he always uses appropriately neutral language, making it clear that the plaintiff was alleging that the defendant had violated a law, and it was up to the justices to make a final decision of guilt.

There are extensive examinations of the careers of the first two women appointed to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (perhaps someday we'll get a revised edition that includes our newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor). It's all extremely fascinating - and sometimes extremely disturbing, some of the arguments that had been made regarding discrimination. For example, General Electric once argued that, in the wake of the Roe v Wade decision, pregnancy was now a purely elective state and a woman who wished to retain her job merely get a "lunch-time abortion procedure." Since abortion was available on demand, the company wasn't obligated to pay out temporary disability benefits to pregnant employees.

Also of interest to anyone who followed Justice Sotomayor's road to the Supreme Court, is that Justice Sotomayor was not the first federal judge to be accused of bias because of her race and gender. Constance Baker Motley, an African-American woman, served as the district court judge in the case of Diane Blank v. Sullivan & Cromwell, a case where female law students claimed that a prestigious law firm had discriminatory hiring practices against women. The lawyer for Sullivan & Cromwell tried to get Justice Motley to remove herself from the case, alleging that due to her race and sex she was biased in cases of alleged workplace discrimination. As we saw this past summer, history can repeat itself.

This is a big, impressive book, with lots of gritty law details that it doesn't always take the time to explain (for example, I still have no idea why it's a big deal to work on your law school's law review. I'm not even sure what exactly a law review is). But like I said at the top, I wish I'd had this when I was studying the Supreme Court in 8th grade - it would have brought a whole new lens to a lot of the cases we studied that year. It also starkly shows just how terrifying the world was not too long ago. I have never had to face sex-segregated 'help wanted' ads; I have always known my bosses and teachers have no right to touch me; rape has always been a crime, as has child and domestic abuse. Some of these things seem like such basic, common sense things, that it's terrifying to think that women like my mom didn't have these rights. Equal is an absolutely essential read, for almost everyone, but especially anyone with an interest in the law or women's history in the US.

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