In Women and Justice for the Poor, Felice Batlan reconstructs a lost history of legal aid in the United States. Building on extensive and creative archival research, she pushes beyond traditional narratives of the early history of legal aid and accepted definitions of the meaning of legal work. She shows how in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries women’s organizations became leading providers of legal aid in major cities across the United States.
Batlan then examines the dramatic consequences when, in the early twentieth century, professional male lawyers took an interest in legal aid. Male lawyers sought to professionalize legal aid. Part of this professionalization process involved the displacement of the women lay lawyers who for generations had been providing legal services to underprivileged communities. At stake in this conflict was not only the question of who could claim professional authority but also two different models of legal aid. One model—which became associated with the rising profession of social workers—sought to blur the line between legal and non-legal services, insisting on a holistic approach to clients’ problems, aiming at substantive rather than procedural justice, and focusing on the entire family unit, rather than focusing simply on the individual. The ultimately triumphant model pushed by certain male lawyers insisted instead on the distinctive nature of legal problems and knowledge and focused on delivering solutions to individual clients. Strikingly, as Batlan shows, the end result of this conflict was not a linear progression from social work to law—or from women to men—but a complex story in which conflict was followed by mutual accommodation for several decades in the 1930s and 1940s, before the more expansive, social-work-oriented view largely (though never entirely) succumbed.
Previous scholars have missed this rich and fascinating history because, as Batlan explains, the men who sought to control legal aid in the early twentieth century also rewrote its history, intentionally excluding the key role of women. Batlan’s book thus provides a vital corrective story. Through this rich social history of legal aid from the Civil War through the mid-twentieth century, Batlan challenges her readers to think more critically about what it means to practice law and how historians write about the history of lawyering. Women and Justice for the Poor is a remarkable feat of historical excavation and reinterpretation.Honorable mentions went to another former guest blogger, Reuel Schiller (UC Hastings), for Forging Rivals: Race, Class, Law, and the Collapse of Postwar Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015), and to Katherine Unterman (Texas A&M University) for Uncle Sam's Policeman: The Pursuit of Fugitives across Borders (Harvard University Press, 2015).