Briefing Room


Introduction to Feminist Legal Theory, Third Edition

January 5, 2013 | Faculty

(Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, 2013)

By Martha Chamallas

Since its first edition published 15 years ago, Introduction to Feminist Legal Theory has been a treatise intended to demystify the subject for students, scholars, and lawyers alike. Written in a straightforward tone free of legal jargon, the newly released third edition stays true to its original intent and includes modern theories on feminism, LGBT and critical race perspectives, and changes in the law over the last decade.

Author Martha Chamallas, the Robert J. Lynn Chair in Law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, is hailed for writing the leading text in the field, which also is the first book to serve as an introductory survey of feminist jurisprudence. The 464-page book spans the range of legal issues relating to women and gender, including sex-based discrimination, sexual harassment, rape, sex trafficking, abortion, LGBT rights, and more. Chamallas adeptly provides a historical overview of feminist legal theory, tracing its development from the early 1970s to present day, and covering new paradigms  as well as backlash forces and major critiques.

In her introduction, Chamallas explains that feminist legal theory is the study of life and law, proceeding from the assumption that gender plays an important role in everyday encounters because being a man or a woman figures prominently in one’s life. Feminist legal theory approaches the study of law by examining how gender has mattered to the development of law and how different groups of men and women are affected by the power of law. Those far-reaching effects are found in modern policy debates, showing that feminist legal theory is not just an area of study for past generations but very much needed in the present day.

“No one better illuminates the richness and continuing relevance of feminist legal theory than Martha Chamallas. At a time when simplistic accounts of gender dominate conventional wisdom (think ‘the end of men’ and the ‘opt-out revolution’ that wasn’t), Chamallas’ insight into the complex relationships of women, men, and gender, and the role of law in constructing and relating them, is more pertinent than ever,” Deborah L. Brake, professor of law and distinguished faculty scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said in her review of the new edition.

Chamallas maintains that while certain aspects of feminist legal theory have become mainstream, “feminism has neither been embraced nor rejected by the law.” She continues by asserting that it is still true that patterns of gender discrimination repeat themselves in reproduced, updated versions, creating a paradox for contemporary feminists. “Things seem to have changed a lot for women, yet strangely have remained the same. Popular culture often reports and exaggerates the changes, but it neglects the continuities. As a 60-something feminist who remembers the days before the women’s movement, I marvel at the resiliency of the basic structures of male domination in the face of remarkable changes in the situation of women.”

The third edition includes an “enemies list” for legal feminists, designed to be used as a toolkit to analyze a range of social issues.  Chamallas wishes to free feminists from the need to declare allegiance to any particular brand of feminism and calls for a renewed emphasis on achieving the broad goals of ending women’s subordination, curbing sexual violence, and constraining gender norms that inhibit individual liberty.

“Unless we are to hold women solely responsible for their unequal status, the conventional wisdom that gender discrimination is no longer prevalent simply does not square with the common understanding that it is still extremely difficult for a women to be both a ‘good’ mother and a ‘valuable’ employee and to live her life in safety, free from sexual violence, abuse, or denigration,” she writes.

Her latest edition features up-to-date theories and topics, such as the “masculinities” theory and “social justice” feminism, and delves into what Chamallas dubs the “new three” feminisms: intersectional, autonomy, and postmodern feminism. Chamallas also weaves in LGBT and critical race perspectives throughout the text. “Feminist legal theory in the 21st century is increasingly complex, borrowing methods and insights from other bodies of critical scholarship and sometimes indistinguishable from allied ‘intersectional’ discourses,” she writes.

While the book remains focused on the United States, important new material on global and comparative feminism has been added. Also discussed are changes in law since 2003 covering developments in pay equity, reproductive justice, marriage equality, and transgender issues.

“The new edition of Introduction to Feminist Legal Theory is perfect for classroom use, providing solid grounding in the basics in a way that makes the concepts accessible and engaging to students. At the same time, it is foundational in the field, a must-read for legal scholars, whether they are visitors to the field of legal feminism or dwell in its domain,” Brake wrote in her review.