Professor Halley on Gender and the Law

 

Janet Halley criticizes feminists for relying mainly on a “prohibitionist” approach that identifies what’s bad in the world and then writes a statute making it unlawful.

Credit: Asia KepkaProfessor Janet Halley

Janet Halley, Royall Professor of Law at HLS and a nationally renowned expert on sexuality and the law, helped to organize the conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, “Gender and the Law: Unintended Consequences, Unsettled Questions” [see story], which she says was “one of the best conferences on gender and the law in five years.” Here, Halley explains why:

Why the focus on “unintended consequences”?

Barbara Grosz was the perfect person to organize the conference. As well as being dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, she’s a computer scientist. She says it’s easy to get a computer to do what you want it to do, but really demanding to anticipate what you don’t want to happen. With feminism’s successes, we have to ask ourselves, what were the unintended consequences? Did the movement produce the liberation and equality we anticipated?

In what way was the conference on the cutting edge?

The entire conference refuted the presumption that women are the only group that we care about, and that ‘women’ constitute a consolidated group with uniform interests, so that what benefits the homemaker, for example, will therefore also benefit the working woman. They need not necessarily have adverse interests but they may have different interests. And the shift in the discussion from ‘women’ to ‘gender’ is very important because it acknowledges that men have gender, too.

The conference also tried to pay attention to the ways that feminist work is going on in the developing world. It wanted to be, and to some extent was, very attentive to the fact that not all work on gender emanates from Western feminism.

Were you surprised by the range of opinions?

There were people who disagreed and yet engaged full bore in the conference without censoring themselves. We got to hear what they thought. That is immense progress for a conference on women in the law, in that there was no presumed consensus but plenty of healthy divergence in methods and prescriptions. I do think the motto, ‘unintended consequences,” set the right tone.