Women Also Know Law

Meera Deo’s path making book Unequal Profession: Race and Gender in Legal Academia turned the legal academy’s apparent interest in racial and gender diversity back on the legal academy. Unequal Profession, published by the Stanford University Press in 2019, shared Deo’s empirical and qualitative analysis of the legal profession, based in significant part on interviews that Deo conducted with law professors.

When Deo began her study in the 2000s, the data from the Association of American Law Schools suggested that barely 41% of law school faculties were women. But that number included non-tenure track faculty, and as Renee Nicole Allen, Alicia Jackson, and DeShun Harris, among other scholars have noted, women are overrepresented among non-tenure track faculty. In other words, the percentage of law school faculty who are women would be lower than 41% if the data set included only tenured or tenure-track law school faculty.

This disparity is evident in many different ways and along many different measures. The most cited legal scholars are overwhelmingly white men. And too often, syllabi, conferences, and legal news stories feature white men as experts. Some of these disparities are due to the lingering effects of exclusion—until relatively recently, law schools did not hire many, or even any, women as faculty members, and when they did, women faced barriers in securing tenure. Other disparities are caused by phenomena that persist to this day.

As Deo persuasively demonstrates in her book, women are sometimes asked to take on more administrative caretaking or institutional service work at schools. Students may feel able to approach women professors for a wider range of support tasks than they would of male professors. And law schools, in order to ensure that there is diversity on various committees, sometimes end up asking women faculty to do more service work. The same goes for teaching: in order to ensure that students, particularly first-year students, learn from a diverse set of faculty, the few tenure-track women faculty members may be asked to teach large classes, including first-year classes, rather than smaller more niche electives. All of that means they may have less time to conduct and promote their own research. If and when they do go out and promote their own work and research, they may be perceived more negatively than men who do the same. We know that these burdens and disadvantages are even more severe for women of color and have been compounded by the pandemic.

It’s no surprise given the state of legal academia that the same is true outside of our academic institutions, as the public may perceive that legal scholars are overwhelmingly male. Women and nonbinary legal scholars are underrepresented in news and media, where too often journalists don’t seek out women’s expertise and instead rely on male experts. Women experts even tend to have less Twitter followers and reach than men. This means that not only are law students and our colleagues not seeing and hearing enough from women legal experts, but neither is the public.

This underrepresentation in law schools and media doesn’t mean that women are not doing great work in the legal academy. Far from it. While we recognize that there’s still a lot of dismantling of gender bias to do in the academy, we formed Women Also Know Law to provide one easy and concrete solution. In creating the Women Also Know Law database and social media platform, we joined a growing group of other Women Also Know initiatives across the academy, including the OG Women Also Know Stuff in political science, Women Also Know History, and People of Color Also Know Stuff. These, and other public facing efforts like Strict Scrutiny and Women in the Law, are changing the look and sound of legal expertise.

Women Also Know Law offers a database and a social media feed to highlight the work of women and nonbinary legal academics. The database offers a searchable resource for scholars and journalists looking to find an expert, an author, a panelist, or someone to include on a syllabus. And every day the Twitter feed highlights the articles that are being written by women and nonbinary authors, as well as the articles that quote or feature them and the accolades they receive. By amplifying the work of women and nonbinary academics, we can try to combat some of the disparities and disadvantages they face – whether it’s additional teaching, additional requests from students, or additional service work.

Equally important, the database and social media feed eliminate a persistent excuse that conference organizers or journalists sometimes use when they present a less than diverse array of experts—namely, that they didn’t know any women or nonbinary experts or weren’t sure where to find them. We’ve done that work for them; all they have to do is use the tools that we’ve made available.

We’re fortunate to have a wonderful group of students and advisory board members at the University of Michigan Law School who help produce our social media feed. You can help Women Also Know Law too! Everyone can message us on Twitter with recent publications and accomplishments for us to highlight and promote. If you’re a conference organizer, journalist, podcaster, or professor, use the database! There are hundreds of legal experts in every field of law just a keyword search away for your next article, panel, or syllabus. And especially important: if you’re a woman or nonbinary legal scholar, join the Women Also Know Law database with hundreds of other legal scholars so we can amplify your expertise.

Authors: Leah Litman and Emily Prifogle are the cofounders of Women Also Know Law. They are both assistant professors of law at the University of Michigan Law School.

“No One Succeeds Alone”: The Critical Importance of Role Models in Empowering Women of Color to Succeed in the Legal Field

Women make up 50.8 percent of the United States population.  Women of color make up 20.2 percent of the population of women.  Despite these statistics, the prevalence of women—and women of color specifically—within the legal field is disparate.

  • Women account for only 35 percent of the legal practitioners.
  • Women of color make up only 8.57 percent of all attorneys.
  • Women fill only 1 percent of all (state and Federal) judgeships.
  • Women fill only 22 percent of state judgeships.
  • Women of color fill only 8 percent of state court judgeships.

These statistics, and the disparity they represent, indicate a colossal failure by the legal community to uplift, support, and sponsor women of color.  Tsedale M. Melaku discussed this failing in her 2019 article Why Women and People of Color in Law Still Hear “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer.”  She explained that there is an unwritten (but undoubtedly experienced) “inclusion tax” forcing people of color to expend “time, money, and mental and emotional energy required to gain entry to and acceptance from traditionally white and male institutional spaces.”

My personal experience, from childhood to Justice, serves as an example of why representative mentoring structures are imperative for women of color within the legal community.

Growing up on the Leech Lake reservation, my access to influential women was extremely limited. I was the only daughter surrounded by four brothers, two older and two younger.  My father was a union man, and because of the remoteness of where we lived, work could be scarce.  My mother, a Fulbright scholar, worked in Indian Education at my high school.  She was an incredibly strong woman who led our family through many challenging and difficult times, including a catastrophic house fire, two of my brothers being hit by a drunk driver (one of whom lived despite the odds), and my father losing both legs to diabetes followed by his untimely death, all while managing a family of 7 on a low income.

In high school, I looked into becoming a dentist because I thought our dentist was a very nice man.  Thankfully, I realized that was a poor choice because I didn’t enjoy science.  How law entered my mind, I have no idea.  It certainly was not from television, because we had two channels, and Hee Haw was not much of an inspiration.  My mother had attended St. Catherine University and, as her only daughter, it seemed like a logical choice for me.  At St. Catherine’s, I was exposed to diverse, strong women—all with impressive career goals.  The majority of the professors were women, and they encouraged my desire to become a lawyer. Though I still had not been exposed to anyone like me (a Native woman) who was a lawyer, I knew that other women from St. Catherine’s had become lawyers and judges, and this reinforced my goal to become an attorney.

After St. Catherine’s, I attended Hamline Law School, where I met one Native student.  But she was in her 3-L year and graduated shortly afterward.  I do not recall meeting any other women, let alone women of color, that I felt a connection with while in law school. Although I did find great friends, I felt isolated.

After law school, I joined the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.  There I was surrounded by strong women who were very influential and supportive.  These women, and my other colleagues, all seemed to know where they were going.  I, however, felt adrift.  It was not until I had the good fortune of meeting District Court Judge Robert Blaeser that my career plans began to solidify.  Judge Blaeser provided me with mentorship from a person who was from, and appreciated, my Native heritage. He could see the passion in me, and helped bridle, mold, and direct my drive.  He accepted me with all of my limitations.  He stuck with me through my eye-rolling phase, my less-than-stellar pregnancy wardrobes, and when I nearly burned down the family justice center by neglecting my waffles that were stuck in a malfunctioning toaster.

My mentorship with Judge Blaeser morphed into friendship, and has been pivotal to my success as an attorney, Judge, and now Justice.  He is one of the people who encouraged me to apply to be a Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court so I could become an example for others who, like myself, didn’t have friends in influential positions.

I would love to say my transition to the supreme court was flawless, but it was not.  I felt like a fish out of water.

I had read My Beloved World by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  She wrote, “Many of the gaps in my knowledge and understanding were simply limits of class and cultural background, not lack of aptitude or application as I feared.”  Her words echoed my thoughts, and shortly after I was appointed I had the good fortune to meet her.  It was exactly what I needed at the time, because she instantly infused me with confidence that I was not only worthy, but that I was capable. Her affirmation reinforced my individual value to the court and reminded me how important and essential it is to receive validation from others with whom you feel a unique bond and connection.

I cannot highlight enough the importance of having a mentor who can see, understand, and feel your history, struggle, resilience, and drive.  The legal community could vastly improve the experience of women of color by developing a culturally-competent mentoring structure.  One of the best ways to do this is to cultivate a group of well-established attorneys of color who can provide mentoring, friendship, and sound career advice to the young women of color entering the legal field.

When, at long last, the bar is representative of our communities of color, our communities will be better off.  Our lawyering and judging will become more grounded in the reality of experiences that have long been ignored by the majority.  I hope that I have played, and will continue to play, some small role in making this happen.

The Honorable Anne K. McKeig joined the Minnesota Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in September 2016.  A descendant of the White Earth Nation, Justice McKeig is the first Native American female to sit on any state supreme court, and her appointment created a women’s majority on the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Disability Justice is Gender Justice: Acknowledging Disabled Women This Women’s History Month

Marissa Ditkowsky, a white woman with dark, long hair, a black coat, and a walker, stands in front of a large crowd and a stage at the Women's March in January 2017. Marissa would like to recognize activist Mia Ives-Rublee for ensuring the Women's March was an accessible and inclusive experience for her and other disabled protestors.
Marissa Ditkowsky, a white woman with dark, long hair, a black coat, and a walker, stands in front of a large crowd and a stage at the Women's March in January 2017. Marissa would like to recognize activist Mia Ives-Rublee for ensuring the Women's March was an accessible and inclusive experience for her and other disabled protestors.

Content Warning: This article contains discussion of sexual assault, trauma, gender-based violence, and loss of reproductive autonomy.

Roe v. Wade is a landmark case that is largely associated with gender justice and reproductive justice. However, we do not discuss how Roe v. Wade plaintiff Norma McCorvey was institutionalized, was a ward of the state, experienced extreme trauma throughout her life, and used substances. We fail to address how these issues of autonomy, due process, and control over our bodies that permeate reproductive justice case law and disproportionately affect disabled women. We ignore the ways in which reproductive justice intersects with disability justice. After all, then-sitting Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. thought it apt to write in Buck v. Bell, “It is better for all the world, if . . . society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” in upholding the constitutionality of a Virginia statute authorizing compulsory sterilization of individuals with intellectual disabilities for eugenic purposes. Buck v. Bell has never been formally overturned. This ableist history is one that we must also grapple with during Women’s History Month. Often, disabled women, particularly disabled women who are black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), are overlooked in these conversations. The intersectionality of disability justice and gender justice must be acknowledged for us to defeat systemic oppression and undermine patriarchal norms.

As a disabled person, much of my work has focused on the intersection of disability justice and other identities and aspects of the law. I have produced scholarship on the constitutional concerns raised when a disabled adult under guardianship is not guaranteed the right to make a decision about whether to reproduce. My current project at Tzedek DC—a non-profit dedicated to safeguarding the legal rights of DC residents with low incomes dealing with often unjust, abusive, and illegal debt collection practices, as well as other consumer protection problems—focuses on the rights of disabled consumers and how these issues disproportionately affect disabled individuals. Disability is not an issue that we can silo. Disability justice is racial justice; it is LGBTQ+ justice; it is environmental justice; it is employment justice; it is educational justice; it is criminal legal reform. Disability is engrained in every aspect of our lives—it is part of our identity.

Disabled women are still regularly deprived of autonomy and due process. With the release of the New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears and the popularization of the #FreeBritney movement, there have been a number of discussions about 1) the problems associated with overly restrictive guardianships and conservatorships, 2) how they restrict the rights of disabled individuals, and 3) how gender played into the way Britney Spears was treated throughout her career and by the legal system. In the documentary, Tess Barker, one of the co-hosts of the podcasts “Britney’s Gram,” poignantly notes, “I have always viewed the situation as something that I don’t think would have ever happened to a man in America.” Restrictive and rights-stripping structures like guardianships and conservatorships are not meant for individuals who are able to make their own decisions. It is concerning that disabled women continue to be denied control over their own decisions—whether those decisions are about whether to have children, what to do with our money, what to do with our careers, with whom we associate, how to vote, or anything else—particularly when the judicial branch sanctions these injustices. Guardianships and conservatorships are also extremely difficult to remove once imposed. The legal system sanctions this exploitation and abuse, often times even when less restrictive alternatives would work for the disabled person, such as powers of attorney, which can be revoked; supported decision-making; or limited guardianship, if necessary, in only the areas in which the individual lacks capacity.

This issue of autonomy bleeds into reproductive justice, sexual freedom, and parental rights for disabled women. (It should be noted that reproductive justice is not simply an issue that affects women, although it disproportionately affects women. Reproductive justice is vital for transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming folks who can reproduce as well.) Not all disabled people are permitted to make decisions about their own reproductive rights. Disabled people may be subject to forced sterilization or abortion, or even forced to reproduce. Guardianship may play a role in whether someone can make these decisions—rules are not consistent, although there are typically due process requirements involved in when a guardian can make such decisions. In one case, six-year-old Ashley X’s parents elected to perform estrogen therapy, bone plate fusion, a hysterectomy, and breast bud removal, claiming she would never develop past the motor and cognitive skills of a three-month-old. The State of Washington eventually found that the procedure was illegal, but these eugenic attitudes remain pervasive.

Forced sterilization also occurs in the criminal context. For example, in 2005, Carrie Ashe, who killed her child after experiencing post-partum depression, was forced to agree to undergo sterilization as a part of her plea deal. One might argue that Ashe chose to undergo sterilization, but the choice was sterilization or jail. When these are the options, of course, disabled individuals would feel pressured into sterilization. There is an extreme power imbalance; the government is requiring someone to permanently give up a fundamental right in exchange for freedom.

Additionally, disabled people, particularly women, face increased barriers to accessing reproductive health care and assisted reproductive technology; for example, parents face discrimination based on doctor concerns about parenting, concerns about pregnancy complications, or concerns that a child will be disabled. Finally, large numbers of people with disabilities rely on Medicaid for health care; the Hyde Amendment ensures that Medicaid does not pay for abortion access, creating a large barrier for disabled individuals, or anyone, on Medicaid who wishes to access an abortion.

People with disabilities are, generally, deprived of sexual freedom because they are not viewed as sexual beings and concerns about reproduction and parenting ability. Disabled people may also be viewed as hypersexual. For these reasons and due to the general inaccessibility and inapplicability of sexual education to the experiences of disabled people, sexual education is also largely unavailable.

Parents with disabilities also lose their fundamental, constitutional rights more frequently than non-disabled parents. Disabled BIPOC are at even greater risk of losing these rights. Parents with disabilities face doubt and assumptions about their abilities that non-disabled parents simply do not.

In addition to being denied fundamental rights, disabled women are more likely to experience violence and gender-based violence than non-disabled women. Non-disabled individuals may also become disabled as a result of gender-based violence. This violence can cause disability such as post-traumatic stress disorder, other psychiatric disabilities, or physical disabilities, for example.

Finally, health care disparities are greater for disabled women than men. Women, in general, struggle to get doctors to believe and properly diagnose their conditions; women’s symptoms and complaints are often dismissed. As a result of dismissing pain, women are also more likely to be unable to access opioids and other painkillers to manage their symptoms. These disparities and dangers are greater for BIPOC women.

My first experience with this dismissiveness was when I was a child. I had constant gastrointestinal pain. My doctor refused to refer me to a gastroenterologist, claiming I was just “eating too many chicken nuggets.” All the while, I had been living with Celiac Disease, which had been destroying my intestines. Later in my life, it took almost two years to diagnose gallstones that had infected my gallbladder by the time it was removed. By that point, I had simply been told I had acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome, and doctors had given up. Finally, it took years to diagnose my myotonic dystrophy. Throughout my life, I’d had pain, spasms, and other neurological phenomena that no one could diagnose. Even after my condition began to rapidly progress, doctors dismissed my concern that it could be a genetic or more multi-systemic condition. They also ignored my ideas about diagnoses. I brought up myotonic dystrophy as a possibility three years prior to official diagnosis. That diagnosis and my concerns were dismissed. It then took going to two different doctors to receive that diagnosis via a genetic test. I lost years of monitoring, physical therapy, and pain relief.

Disability issues are women’s issues. Disabled women are dying, losing their constitutional rights, and being stripped of their autonomy. These are, of course, not the only ways in which disability justice and women’s rights intersect. However, we cannot let these practices continue while calling ourselves warriors for gender equity; we must not forget about disabled women. When we discuss case law and constitutional issues at the forefront of the progressive and feminist movements, we must acknowledge the disabled women throughout history who have dedicated their labor and shared their stories to advance these movements and bring cases forward, how these decisions disproportionately impact disabled women, and the ways in which we, as lawyers, can work with and listen to the disabled community to effect broad change.

Marissa Ditkowsky is Tzedek DC’s 2019-2021 Gallogly Family Foundation Fellow. She also is a DC Lawyer Chapter leader.