Tuesday, November 3, 2015

ASLH Panel Recap: "Strategies for Sex Equality"

[We’re grateful to Smita Ghosh, JD, Class of 2014, and PhD Candidate, American Legal History, at the University of Pennsylvania, for this thoughtful recap of a panel at the recently concluded annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History.]

It was my pleasure to spend the early hours of Friday morning in a panel called "Strategies for Sex Equality: Points Taken and Missed in Postwar Legal Feminism," with Katherine Turk, Leandra Zarnow and Mary Ziegler, and Serena Mayeri as the commentator. Live-blogging a panel is not as easy as the experts make it look, so I may have missed something, hopefully others will feel free to correct/comment/commence a firing squad.

In “Gendered Skill, Labor Politics, and Legal Politics in the New York Hotel Industry,” Katherine Turk took the history of labor feminism into the 1980s.  In the hotel industry, women’s work involved more routine tasks, while men’s was more sporadic but labor-intensive.  In the mid-1980s, union leaders attempted to reform the industry, filing Equal Pay and Title VII actions, and using the resulting melee to push a settlement.  (I think this is how it went down, this blogger can’t take notes as quickly as she’d like).  Echoing the work of scholars of labor feminism--Debbie Dinner, who Mayeri mentioned in her comments, comes to mind--Turk used quotes from union members to show their ambivalence about the language of formal equality that their lawyers required.  These women were not eager to say that their jobs were equal to men’s r that they could do a man’s job.  In Turk’s reading, they appealed to gender difference as a way to protect themselves against neoliberalism. And their instincts were prescient, it turned out, since the hotel owners eventually responded to the suit by eliminating jobs, resulting in a “race to the bottom” in which each worker ended up doing more for less.  A cynical story, especially amid the adornments of a hotel conference center.

Leandra Zarnow‘s presentation--“A Lawyerly Congresswoman: Bella Abzug and the ‘Deliberate’ Legal Feminist Edge of 1970s Congressional Reform”-- focused on Abzug’s time in congress.  Abzug had worked in labor law and in NLG leadership (which, we learn, sought to survive anti-Communism by putting women in higher roles).  At the root of her stint in the House was a “deep frustration” with the pace of legal change, and an ambivalence towards liberals in courts and congress. Once she entered Congress, Abzug was a procedural innovator.  She added sex discrimination riders to “everything that moved” (I’m quoting Serena Mayeri here), and used resolutions of inquiry to press for more information from the executive.  In commentary, Mayeri noted that Abzug’s subversive use of the political system indicated that other “insider feminists”--law clerks or legislative aides--might be good subjects for future study. 

The Abzug example also spoke to current debates about working women and “having it all.”  As an employer, Abzug sought to counter the “male military megalomania” (her words, I believe) that she faced in Congress. She hired an entirely female staff, and accommodated staffers with children.  She even had a drop-in child care center at her campaign headquarters for workers and volunteers. 

in the final paper, “From Choice to Constraint: Reproductive Liberty Organizing in the Shadow of Roe”, Mary Ziegler challenged that traditional story that feminists, clinging to the language of Roe, developed a myopic view of abortion as a negative right, ignoring issues like access to health care and sterilization abuse.  Using oral histories of activists from a variety of organizations (think NOW and NARAL, but also their more radical allies), Ziegler argues that that feminists in the 1970s read a powerful set of positive rights into Roe’s rhetoric, arguing that “meaningful choice” involved access to health care and the prevention of sterilization abuse.  In this position, activists critiqued the “traditional health complex” as well, responding to the mobilization of feminist health care workers.  By the 1980s, though, things got more complicated.  A pro-life majority was elected into both houses of Congress.  Pro-life PACs formed, forcing women’s organizations onto the defensive.  And Neoliberalism, Ziegler suggests, led to the development of a new political mentality.  These “constraints” made the 1970s vision of the right-to-choose as a right to government assistance was increasingly untenable.

This effect of neoliberalism was the main jist of Mayeri’s comments, too.  All three panelists, she noted, deal with the ironic convergence of feminism and the rise of the New Right and neoliberal economics. Their papers coincide to tell the history of the 1970s: the demise of postwar prosperity, the retrenchment of liberal courts and the growth of single-issue politics that put feminist groups on the defensive.  In the Q&A, Barbara Welke--referencing Turk’s hotel maids and thinking of the Hyatt staff--asked the panel and the room about studying women’s labor from a position of privilege.  Panelists shared their feelings about staying in hotels (guilty) and studying working women (grateful).  It was a rare and appreciated moment of academic self-reflection from Professor Welke and the scholars on the panel (maybe we can credit “women’s work” for this, too) and a fitting and provocative finale.