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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Curricular Powder Room?

A female friend who teaches family law recently wryly suggested to me that family law had become "the curricular powder room," in that circa 2011 it is a subject whose teaching and scholarship is dominated by women in the American legal academy.  This was not always so. In her work on the development of family law textbooks out of domestic relations courses, my wonderful colleague Janet Halley's What Is Family Law? A Genealogy, Part I and II (the latter is forthcoming) shows that in its early days family law textbook writing was dominated by men, just like all other fields of law, and the female dominance is of fairly recent vintage.

I only dabble in family law with my reproductive technology work, but my experience with the various conferences I attend has led me to believe that the number of heterosexual men who primarily write and teach in the area and have joined the academy in the last 10 years or so is extremely small, and even when I teach family law topics I can feel myself performing my sexuality to some extent as if it were a ritual to get access or credibility.  The only other field that I know of which comes close in terms of gender splits, is health law, although here the split feels more like 50/50, which is striking more because of the gender disparity of almost all the other fields in law.

Of course, one reaction to all this is that it is the other legal fields that are the problem in terms of gender skew so far in favor of men, and I am sympathetic to that point, but in this post I am primarily curious about what the ramifications are of family law having become "the curricular powder room"?

Would family law scholarship and teaching be different if more men were involved? Does the female domination of it lead to a kind of reactive devaluation of its importance or seriousness by the rest of the legal academy? Are there methodological correlates to the gender skew – for example, again from my relative outsiders' perspective, there seems to have been less law and econ in family law than elsewhere, and I wonder if that is partially a function of gender (but worry that this hypothesis itself might be based on gender stereotypes)? What impact does all this have on our students' enrollment in these classes, experienc of them, and career choices in the area? Are any of these descriptive claims (if they obtain) actually problems, or at least things the field should be concerned with?

Posted by Glenn Cohen on November 15, 2011 at 11:12 PM in Culture, Gender, Legal Theory, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Perhaps this is part of the problem -- that there is a male aversion to studying fields related to gays and women?

The inverse. The OP claims, in a round about way, that the field is comprised mostly of women and homosexuals, and that they don't display any interest in about half the people subjected to family law, namely men. Include children and it's a lot more than half because apparently the feminists haven't yet found a way to give girls preferential treatment over boys.

At any rate, "family law" is an evil scam.

Posted by: Flemur | Nov 24, 2011 3:44:20 PM

"It's no wonder that few men want to work in a field whose primary academic subjects are gays and women."

Perhaps this is part of the problem -- that there is a male aversion to studying fields related to gays and women?

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Nov 16, 2011 12:50:37 PM

Thanks All. Observer -- I am not sure if you work in the field or not, but for my 2 cents I think this is actually one of the more exciting periods to be working in family law, in that the contours of family law are really being pushed and there is a lot of rethinking of what the field is and isn't (Halley's paper I mentioned above is a great historical account of the prior transformations).
Here are just three quick examples of those changes that I find fascinating (there are many more)
- The intersection of family law and criminal law, including Dan and his co-authors' work and Melissa Murray's recent papers.
- Halley's "Up Against Family Law Exceptionalism" project in which many others are part of, or what I like to call "Family Law 2.0" that seeks to imagine the family as a distributive unit, for which lots of parts of law dealing specifically with economics and distribution now are relevant.
- Laura Rosenbury, Ethan Leib, and others' work on Friendship and Friends With Benefits, and how they might be incorporated into or force a change of family law.
Now it may be you have the same unexcited view of these projects as you do the ones you referenced, but I have to say I find this and many other work in the field really quite exciting.

I'll also note that all the comments by authors who have not posted anonymously thus far, have by been men and apparently by people on the "outside" of family law. I am not sure what to make of it, but it seemed worth noting.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Nov 16, 2011 12:48:00 PM

Family law research has degenerated into second-hand con law (re gay marriage) and second-hand legal philosophy (re women's rights). Its real substance -- the law governing private family matters -- is rarely studied in any seriousness. It's no wonder that few men want to work in a field whose primary academic subjects are gays and women. (BTW, I support both gay rights and women's rights; I just don't support the dissolution of family law into those two subjects).

Posted by: observer | Nov 16, 2011 12:24:56 PM

I don't teach or write in any areas related to family law, but I have heard complaints from those who do that family law scholars tend to be clumped around a specific set of ideological views-- and that they are not exactly welcoming of others who don't share that set of views. I'm curious if others think that is true; I don't know myself. But if it's true, I wonder if it might explain some of the gender split.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Nov 16, 2011 11:30:42 AM

If I were in family law, I'd be sad to hear a guy thinks it takes "buck[ing] up" in order to "occup[y] the powder room". I'll keep a look out for the OPR sleep-ins! (:

Posted by: Re anon | Nov 16, 2011 10:54:30 AM

I suspect that some of this is due to family law being seen (rightly or wrongly) as a niche area, and so one that many people do as an "extra" to the area they take as their main focus, or as one aspect of their general research. It's easy to see people w/ a strong interest in feminist legal theory being interested in family law issues, and so teaching family law, for example, and that seems to happen a fair amount. (As a side note, Amy Wax at Penn has taught a course called something like "Law and economics of the family" several times, though I'm not sure if she's taught it recently.) But, this shouldn't only apply to women- family law issues are quite relevant to one of my main ares of work- immigration- and to some of my writing on the subject, and I'd be very happy to teach it if I had the chance, but I can imagine lots of people who work in more "traditional" or "core" areas as seeing it as not closely related to their own work.

Posted by: Matt | Nov 16, 2011 9:37:53 AM

Glenn, I worry about these issues too. I have a non-trivial interest in this area and yet I'm not sure if/when I could/should teach this, or a thematically related course on gender, family and law. I think I might just buck up and do it next year...and if I do, I'll probably try to follow the bright path set out by Brian Bix and Michael McConnell, who have, in relatively recent times, occupied the "powder room."

Posted by: anon | Nov 16, 2011 9:29:04 AM

Fantastic post, Glenn.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 16, 2011 9:07:45 AM

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