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Gender and Law

Lizabeth Johnson,

Course Description

In modern Western society, our conversations about gender and legal equality, despite their limitations, are fairly nuanced. From discussions about equal protection from violence, equality of payment for work, equal job and academic opportunities, marriage equality, and equal rights for gay and transgender individuals, modern Western society is demonstrating a willingness to address issues of gender and legal equality in many different forms. This willingness to engage in discussion about gender equality represents a remarkable change from attitudes toward gender equality in the pre-modern period. In ancient European society, women were regarded as possessions rather than individuals and had few legal rights and no rights regarding domestic violence or rape. This situation continued into medieval European society, when women’s limited legal rights were further compromised by religious and cultural perceptions regarding women, with the medieval Catholic Church stating that women were the spiritually weaker sex and medieval physicians arguing that conception could not occur without consent, which made it impossible for women to seek justice in cases of rape when they had been impregnated by their attacker.

The only opportunity women had to gain legal equality with men was to embrace a male identity, with some women disguising themselves as monks in order to enter the Church and others agreeing to become “sworn virgins,” a status which allowed these women to live their lives as men, with all the rights that men enjoyed. Even the Enlightenment did not change Europe’s perception of women to any noticeable degree, as seen in the case of Olympe de Gouge, a female French revolutionary who wrote a “Declaration of the Rights of Women” and was executed for her radicalism by contemporary male French radicals. And although gay and transgender individuals existed in the pre-modern period, pre-modern society was not flexible enough to accord specific rights and protections to those individuals and generally regarded them as no better than women. In this class, we’ll examine gender and legal issues from the ancient period forward from an interdisciplinary perspective, with particular emphasis on legal protection from violence, marriage equality, and political and social equality.

Readings and Texts

Sarah B. Pomeroy, The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity. Harvard University Press, 2010. 
Gene Brucker, Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence. University of California Press, 2004. 
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Dover Thrift edition, 1996. 
Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House. Dover Thrift edition, 1992. 
John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women. Dover Thrift edition, 1997. 
Margaret Sanger, Women and the New Race. CreateSpace Independent Platform, 2013. 

Encyclopedia of Sociology entry on Gender
Encyclopedia of Psychology entry on Gender Identity
Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350 to 2000 entry on Gender History
Philippa Maddern, “Interpreting Silence: Domestic Violence in the King’s Courts of East Anglia, 1422-1442,” in Domestic Violence in Medieval Texts, eds. Eve Salisbury et al. 
James Brundage, “Domestic Violence in Classical Canon Law,” in Violence in Medieval Society, ed. Richard W. Kaeuper. 
Ruth Mazo Karras, “The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England,” Signs: a Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14 (1989), 399-433. 
Excerpts of European witch trials. 
Olympe de Gouges, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen
Excerpts of the trial of Oscar Wilde. 
Excerpts of Antonia Young, Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins
Excerpts of Serena Nanda, Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations
Rebecca Walker, “Becoming The Third Wave,” Ms. Magazine, 1992. 

Films and Other Course Materials

Dangerous Beauty (1998). 
The Duchess (2008). 
Beautiful Boxer (2005). 
Boys Don't Cry (1999).

Student Requirements

• Attendance and participation in discussion 
• Leadership of two discussions. Students will lead one discussion based on readings in the syllabus and will provide a list of discussion topics; students will lead a second discussion based on their research topic, and they will assign a reading for the class and will provide discussion topics. 

• Two 5-page papers that will analyze specific readings from class and issues pertinent to gender and law; students will have the opportunity to rewrite the 5-page papers 

• One 20-page research paper on a topic of the student’s choice, addressing the issue of gender and legal equality from an interdisciplinary perspective--Students will perform original research on one issue that reflects the topic of gender and legal equality and will discuss that issue from the perspective of various disciplines, whether history, literature, art, psychology, or law

About the Instructor

Dr. Lizabeth Johnson received a Ph.D. in Medieval European history from the University of Washington, Seattle in 2008. Her primary focus is Medieval British history, and she has published several articles on women's access to the courts of 14th and 15th century Wales and the legal limitations that women faced in those courts.