February 11, 2013 17:44 Age: 1 yrs

A Global "Uncomfortable" Conversation

Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law Martha Albertson  Fineman started the Feminism and Legal Theory Project at the University of Wisconsin  in 1984 to create a forum for interdisciplinary  feminist scholarship, addressing legal and societal issues.

“In the beginning,  my colleagues and I were feeling our way — using feminist theory to take a critical stance that went beyond just adding women,” Fineman says. “We started  to look at gender and the role it played in structuring institutions and relationships in society, particularly in regard to the family and workplace.”

Now at Emory, the FLT Project holds four workshops and “uncomfortable conversations” each year, as well as hosting visiting scholars from around the world.

In recent years, scholars from China have discovered the project,  and several are translating Fineman’s work into Mandarin.

Visiting scholars participate in workshops, give presentations and work with students  and faculty. They are attracted to Emory Law because of Fineman’s reputation as an innovative and important scholar and teacher.

A feminist journey

Fineman’s recent scholarship has expanded beyond gender to focus more broadly  on the concepts of dependency  and vulnerability in challenging the narrowness of a sameness-of-treatment or an antidiscrimination approach to inequality.

Her work might be labeled “post-identity,” and she believes “the promise of equality  cannot  be conditioned upon belonging to any identity category,  nor can it be confined to only certain spaces and institutions… equality  must be a universal resource,  a radical guarantee that  is a benefit for all.”

As she wrote in “Evolving Images of Gender and Equality: A Feminist Journey,” published in the New England Law Review  in 2009,  “gender  increasingly has become the door through which I enter the discussion about  equality,  not the entire focus of my inquiry, but merely the beginning.”

Under the theory she is developing  as part of Emory University’s Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative,  Fineman would  replace the autonomous, independent  liberal legal subject with the “vulnerable subject” as the referent for making law and policy.

“Both dependency  and vulnerability are inherent  in the human  condition, but this reality and its implications  are too often ignored or concealed in the theories developed by legal, political,  economic and social policy scholars,” she says.

“While dependency  is episodic — mostly found in the very young, very old and those incapacitated, vulnerability is universal and constant, fundamental in our shared humanity. While vulnerability is a universal reality, it is individually  experienced  as we are located within different material  and social realities, as well as specific institutional contexts,” Fineman says.

Recognizing societal institutions play a role in providing the “resilience” that  mediates,  compensates or relieves vulnerability, Fineman calls for a more responsive state under the current law; one that  pursues reforms to address systemic and structural privilege and disadvantage.

According to Fineman,  the current  dominant idea of an autonomous, self-sufficient liberal subject in U.S. law ignores structural inequalities  and blames individuals for failure.

“The Vulnerable  Subject reflects a realistic legal subject — one who is perceived as constantly vulnerable  to biological,  institutional and environmental challenges throughout life. One that  experiences periods of profound dependency on others and institutions,” Fineman says.

Applying Fineman’s idea of a vulnerable  subject to the legal system would  mandate greater  attention to structural disadvantages and the need to remedy entrenched systems of disparity  currently  present in our institutions.

“It’s exciting to be developing  a new paradigm — one that  provokes  students  and scholars to engage in new ways to think about  law, society and state responsibility,” Fineman says.

Perpetuating thought

When the Barnard  Center for Research on Women dedicated its 37th Annual Conference  this year to vulnerability, organizers  acknowledged Fineman’s “pioneering work on vulnerability, including  [her] leadership  at Emory’s Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative” was one of their inspirations for the conference.

Martha T. McCluskey, professor  of law at SUNY Buffalo Law School, was inspired  by Fineman’s work and is applying the vulnerability theory to her project  on economic inequality  and the law, specifically critiquing  the free-market focus of law and economics.

“Fineman’s  work on vulnerability has been formative  in this project,  especially because its shift in the foundational premises of law from an autonomous subject to a vulnerable subject also shifts our premises about  the role of government in economic policy.”

JaeWon Kim, Sungkyunkwan University’s first professor of disability  law, came to the United States to study international and human rights law. Ten years into teaching, he met Fineman,  who was extremely influential  upon his research on women and society.

“Martha’s books are widely circulated  in the Korean law school, and I was familiar  with her theories  and ideas,” Kim says. “Under her supervision, I had the opportunity to learn more about  FLT, jurisprudence and vulnerability theory,  which has helped shape my work today.”

Through incorporating vulnerability theory into his courses in Seoul, South Korea, Kim seeks to help others understand the need for more substantive equality under Korean law.

Anna Grear, senior lecturer in law at Bristol University in the United Kingdom,  also considers  Fineman a mentor. She discovered Fineman’s work on vulnerability while writing a book,  which deploys “embodied vulnerability” in the context  of building a critique of corporate human rights discourse.

“Martha’s coinage of the term ‘the vulnerable  subject,’ in particular, produces  a trope, or a way of speaking about the subject of law and politics that  has immense heuristic, critical and transformative power,” Grear says.

Grear is developing  a theory of legal subjectivity and reformulating the relationship between human  rights and the environment. She plans to bring these concerns together with reflection  upon indigenous epistemologies when she joins the University of Waikato, New Zealand, as associate professor.

“Martha, more than  any one other scholar,  is behind the genesis of a ‘field’ of engagement  that  we can call ‘the vulnerability thesis,’” Grear says. “She has generously created a space at Emory where scholars working  on this idea can come together  and continue  to build an important global conversation concerning  the role of vulnerability in re-imagining  human  futures.”

Haesook Kim, associate professor  of sociology and chair of Asian studies at Long Island University, has benefited from the “global  conversation” started by Fineman’s work. Kim is writing a book,  Winds  of Change, which examines the entry of women into the exclusive male profession  of law in Korea from 1952 to 2009.

Kim met Fineman at Columbia University while workIng on her PhD dissertation. flt Workshops and Fineman’s mentoring provided  Kim with a strong feminist theoretical background, which she credits with helping develop her last 20 years of work.

“Starting from At the Boundaries  of Law to the development of the dependency  theory, Martha’s journey to demystify the myth of autonomy was pivotal in my development  as a scholar,” Kim says. “She expanded the concept of vulnerability into the larger framework of a universal and constant human condition.”

Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin is the Dorsey & Whitney Chair in Law at the University of Minnesota Law School and a professor  of law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She describes Fineman as “a bedrock  of support,” who helped her transition through various stages of her career and research.

“Martha is deeply wise and extraordinarily generous with her wisdom,” Ní Aoláin says.

Ní Aoláin commends  Fineman for creating  a network for women scholars through the flt Project and conferences focused on vulnerability theory, and it is “a model that  has proved  to be as influential  on scholars as her theories.”

“Martha’s generosity as a networker and as a facilitator, her constant provision  of visiting scholarships, symposia, conferences and the like, is a truly outstanding contribution — as is her willingness to think broadly, generously and creatively about  this important concept,” Grear says.

Holly Cline is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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