Prof. Martha Fineman, founder of the Feminist Legal Theory Project

Feminist Law Profs has posted a brief interview with Professor Martha Fineman, Emory University, about her career and the founding of the Feminist Legal Theory Project in 1984.  She is the author of The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency (The New Press, 2003) and The Neutered Mother, and The Sexual Family and other Twentieth Century Tragedies, (Routledge,1995), among other titles.  Her recent article “The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition” appears in the Yale Journal on Law and Feminism (click here to read it.)

When I was a second-year student at the University of Chicago Law School the only woman law professor I knew – Soya Metchnikoff 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.”

She comments on the obstacles to her advancement as a junior faculty member:

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.

The myth of the “liberal” state?  Kind of like the myth of how “liberal” academia is!  Hell hath no fury like a so-called “progressive” man who can’t stand being out-lefted by his feminist colleagues.  Thanks, jerks, for reminding me why I’m here and why I do what I do.  And thanks to Prof. Fineman for her tenacity and perseverance.  (Count me among those who would have been “defeated” by her family circumstances!)

0 thoughts on “Prof. Martha Fineman, founder of the Feminist Legal Theory Project

  1. I would have been “defeated” back then, and maybe thereafter defibrillated, by having the teaching load on my present job, to say nothing of having the four kids. Fortunately, I got to break in as a visitor elsewhere on a 2-2 with a grad. seminar in the mix, before I had to go face the t. track. (I contrived back then to imagine 2/2 as a crushing workload, at least in the preparation and lecture-writing sense. Quel fou!) What came next in the trajectory for Soya Metchnikoff, anybody know?


  2. Every once in a while, we need to stop and praise the Foremothers. Thank you.

    (And a special thank you for the bibliographic references, because I need to engage a bit more with Feminist Legal Theory in my introduction, and I was at a dead end.)


  3. Notorious–part of this post was to recognize Fineman and her achievements, but sadly, I can assure you all that the insults and skepticism she reports from her early career are not entirely in the rear-view mirror.

    I wish I could assure grad students and junior faculty that those stories are just from the Bad Old Days and not the Enlightened Present, but I can’t. I know I marched off to grad school in 1990 incredibly appreciative of my foremothers’ accomplishments and secure in the knowledge that all of those battles were fought and won, only to find myself fighting if not the same battle, a new front that had opened up in the larger war in the later 1990s and early 2000s.

    I think many, if not most, graduate students are innocent of misogyny, resentment, and other forms of backlash politics until they join the working world. It seems like universities have done a much better job at levelling the playing field in classrooms than they have in the faculty lounges and boardrooms.


  4. Might I recommend the book “Voices of Women Historians” as an interesting read, especially for grad students to get a sense of what our senior female colleagues went through (and continue to go through) since the 1960s. I have had several experiences that slowly opened my eyes to the wall that female academics face. At my current position I have one male colleague who consistently will speak about the elegent style of particular female colleagues and seems to think that is somehow complementary (but never mentions their intellectual ability). And I must note that he specifically exoticizes the women who count as “stylish”. The “feminists” get short shrift. Another colleague will walk past my wide-open office door and say to himself loudly, “oh well, nobody is here” – meaning all of my male colleagues whose offices are near mine. But I also work with some amazing senior scholars who are women and for that I am grateful.


  5. Thanks, Liz–good suggestion. I’ll have to check that out. I’ve seen and overheard those patronizing “compliments” too–men who will compliment a female colleage’s cookies or pies, or ask them about their children but won’t engage them in an intellectual discussion.


  6. A bit late in the game I’d like to just chime in with props for Martha Albertson Fineman. I read her book, The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth-Century Tragedies, as an undergrad and was blown away. She advocated — long before my fellow queers — for the abolition of marriage as a legal category. And she rarely gets the credit by those same queer academics who act like they invented the idea. In Fineman’s account it’s about feminist ends, however, as well as for the benefit of children. Worthy goals both.

    Back in the days when I lived in New York and had more of a social (and sexual) life I once met a Fineman (and he was a fine man) at a bar called The Phoenix. It was where everyone went in the 1990s East Village. After a slightly tipsy conversation, I discovered his identity. He wasn’t just *a* Fineman, he was a son of *the* Fineman. I promptly went home with him.


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