Thursday, December 22, 2011

Feminist Legal History (2): Too Fancy

I have had occasion to revisit my thoughts about Kerber and the subfield of feminist legal history over the past two weeks. My university, the University of Vermont, has been in the national media because a group of feminists off-campus discovered a document that appears to be a questionnaire distributed to members or potential members of a fraternity. One question in a battery of diagnostic queries: "Who (sic) would you like to rape?" When an on-campus group sent me the document, I counseled patience, research, carefully formulated demands, etc. Perhaps inevitably, no one listened to me, and the document was soon made public, creating national headlines, an amazingly well-attended rally in the middle of finals week, and decisive action by the university administration and the national headquarters of the fraternity.

Aside from what may be excessive caution on my part, perhaps due simply to age, I wonder about the ways in which professional conditioning may have contributed to the gap between me and the students. I wonder whether others have observed gaps between our approach to sexual hierarchy, rape, domestic violence, abortion, and other "hot-button" feminist issues and the approaches taken by many of our feminist students. As a legal historian, I am accustomed to thinking that it is my job to frustrate my students, to teach them things they don't come to class wanting or thinking they need to know. As a feminist legal historian, I assume that it is my task to frustrate my feminist students, to slow them down, challenge their assumptions about women's vulnerability and about the ubiquity of what they term "rape culture" in modern societies. It's in my professional DNA (I think) to offer nuance, contingency, agency, unintended consequences, and the complex single case against what students know about contemporary data in terms of women's and men's experiences, and what they think they know about history. I don't find it very interesting intellectually to think about heterosexual male violence against women either in the past or the present, or to think about the role of all-male social organizations such as fraternities in the gendered structure of modern societies. But what if, at least some of the time, the students are right? Is it better for them to walk away from our scholarship or courses confused and with a sense of pure contingency than with the (perhaps simplistic) feminist anger that motivated them to sign up or buy the book in the first place? How can we make sure we're speaking to our students/readers, adequately representing what happened in the past, and pushing the debate in more subtle, complex directions?