Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University
This Month @ Moritz

Meet Professor Martha Chamallas: Antidiscrimination Advocate

Professor Chamallas is equally prominent in the field of torts. She is best known for a series of articles examining gender and race bias in torts, drawing attention to the inequalities in the computation of damages, and challenging the law's devaluation of emotional harm.

Martha's appetite for gender studies was whetted at Tufts University where, as an undergraduate in the late 1960s, she was able to take the first courses being offered in women's studies and women and psychology. A social activist, Martha worked three summers with FOCUS, a non-profit organization working to increase the number of minority students enrolling in higher education. She traveled extensively throughout southern states, helping the group provide access to college to more than 300 students.

Working in the south following graduation, Martha decided to pursue a legal education at Louisiana State University. The contrast between Martha and her peers couldn't have been greater. She was a Yankee and one of only 20 women in a class of 300. At that time, LSU had only one woman professor and no courses devoted to issues of women, gender, or race.

Still, she benefited from the attention and mentoring that came from being "highly visible." Martha became the first woman editor-in-chief of the Louisiana Law Review and graduated first in her class.

Professor Chamallas
Professor Chamallas (center) meets DC alumni at the Association of American Law Schools Annual Meeting

Martha's future would be shaped, in part, by her clerkship with Judge Charles Clark of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Appointed by President Nixon, Judge Clark had earned a reputation for integrity and fairness in his representation of then Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett who tried to bar African-American James Meredith from enrolling at Ole Miss. A conservative himself, Judge Clark consistently hired liberal clerks and engaged them fully in discussions about the cases before the court, many of them bellwether civil rights cases. This example of openness to other viewpoints and personal styles served Martha well as she returned to LSU to teach following her clerkship.

In retrospect, Martha is surprised by her acceptance in the classroom while teaching at LSU. Despite her youth, gender, and lack of experience, students readily accepted her. That acceptance, Martha says, "was based then, as it is now, on students knowing the teacher is someone who cares, is enthusiastic, knows something about the topic, and believes that learning is important." That early positive experience reinforced her choice to pursue a career in legal education.

Like many of the women she studies, Martha's career path was circuitous, reflecting the give and take of dual-career marriages and raising a child. Her husband, Peter Shane, is also a law professor; their daughter, Beth, is now a sophomore at NYU. Throughout her career, however, there have been the constants of mentoring and professional growth.

Martha has been a formal and informal mentor to a number of colleagues inside and outside the field of law. Says Martha, "There is nothing like the intensity of a new scholar, particularly when it comes to writing." Delving into different bodies of thought in mentoring relationships has the reciprocal benefit of keeping Martha's scholarship current. Building a diverse personal network creates opportunities for scholars to expand their work exponentially.

Martha says her period of greatest growth as a scholar occurred during her 13-year tenure at the University of Iowa where she held an interdisciplinary joint appointment in law and women's studies. She was able to complete a number of important studies related to race, gender, and the issues facing other underprivileged groups. Her research promoted the creation of new courses and led to new areas of scholarly inquiry. She is a member of an AAUP committee that developed a policy on work-family conflicts in higher education. She began sharing her research and scholarship in courses designed for state and federal judges -- an activity that continues today.

This newest Moritz addition is a scholar in the truest sense of the word. Her mentoring, teaching, writing, and professional activities are integrated and constantly expanding due to the cross-fertilization that occurs. Martha's groundbreaking work in gender and race discrimination did not fit into an existing academic structure created by others. She and her colleagues created a new conceptual structure that responds to the challenges of an increasingly multi-cultural society.

Why did she choose Ohio State despite competing opportunities? A former visiting professor at Ohio State, Martha admired the faculty's dedication to students, their scholarship and good citizenship. She saw a thriving intellectual community and she wanted to be part of it. Great leadership, a faculty committed to participatory governance, and a sense of upward momentum sealed the deal.

The classes Martha teaches today at the Moritz College of Law are far more diverse than the law school class she entered. The composition of the class represents the many advances women and other outsider groups have made in the intervening years – living confirmation of the impact of Martha Chamallas' scholarship and activism.