Law in Contemporary Society


-- By JanePetersen - 03 May 2012

Courage, it seems, is a necessary component of being a good lawyer. In reading about and discussing Martha Tharaud, Sandra Fluke, and John Brown, I couldn’t help but ask myself if I have the courage of these role models. Given my career aspirations in international law, foreign policy, and women’s rights, I am certain I will need it in spades.


Tharaud’s story resonated with me personally. The connection I felt was not because I have a particular interest in labor law, but because of her powerful discussion of the indignities suffered being a woman in law practice. As a young female lawyer, she says she was invisible. Not only that, but her invisibility made her dangerous.

I worked for four years before attending law school, the last of which I spent in the political-military office of the U.S. Department of State. Like Martha Tharaud when she began law practice, I was a very young woman in a heavily male-dominated field. Similarly as well, to many around me I was invisible. Some of the men would ask me to fetch them coffee, though this was certainly not my job. Many expected that, when I handed down an assignment or requested a meeting, they could simply ignore me. Little did they realize, despite my deferential demeanor and diminutive presence, I had power. I had constant access and the ear of the boss, who valued my judgment – often above others’. Because they thought I was powerless, they spoke freely around me in the absence of our boss. This was when I realized my invisibility was an asset. This was also the experience that helped translate my casual interest in women’s rights into a personal goal of achieving equality.


Growing up privileged with progressive parents and feeling as though all opportunities were open to me, I had not thought of myself as a feminist until recent years. However, experience has melted away my na´vetÚ and I have learned more about how females are often treated once they are outside the protective bubble of their progressive egalitarian parents. What I’ve learned shocked me out of my complacence as to my own opportunities. I grew determined to make change. I came to law school because these are issues for lawyers and policymakers alike, and I hope one day to become both.

I look forward to the day when the young, bright woman isn’t invisible (unless she so chooses). Further still, I hope to be someone who contributes to this achievement. Many people might respond that this is 2012, not the 1950s – women have made considerable progress since Martha Tharaud’s day. While this is true, it is quite apparent that we have not made nearly enough. This is evident to me in Rush Limbaugh’s reference to Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute.” I would like to think I would show the poise and bravery she did in the face of such hatred. I expect this will soon be tested.

The utter insufficiency of progress is further evident to me in the way women are treated throughout the world. Abused, raped, mutilated, enslaved, and generally relegated to the status of second-class citizens, women do not enjoy equal status anywhere. For example, in Egypt, the criminal code provides that if a husband beats his wife with good intentions then he will not be subject to criminal penalties. In Saudi Arabia, women are not permitted to vote or to drive. Far from being unique to non-Western countries, United States laws codify the abuse of women as well. In mandating transvaginal ultrasounds, a handful of U.S. states require the non-consensual vaginal penetration of pregnant women who wish to obtain abortions. Though such an act would certainly not be prosecuted as rape, such non-consensual intrusion is hard to distinguish from the federal definition of it. (See

True, but beside the point. I don't think anyone would deny that the actions involved, undertaken with the requisite felonious intent in the absence of consent, are a crime. But, barring emergency, any invasive medical procedure or test carried out without consent is a battery, unless preceded by the patient's informed consent. The fact that the State is mandating an invasive procedure under circumstances that smack of punitive behavior against citizens exercising constitutional rights is deplorable, but that doesn't imply that the physician or nurse, having gotten the patient's informed consent to the procedure, is now under any threat of criminal liability. It isn't that it wouldn't be prosecuted. It's that there is absolutely no crime.

One can understand why in the discourse of politics, it is may seem more effective to talk about this as rape than to say that the State should never require invasive procedures that aren't medically necessary in the treating physician's judgment. And that to require such procedures, out of animus against citizens peacefully exercising their constitutional rights, is an inhumane abomination of the highest order. But for lawyers it is important to make the distinction between legal discourse and the other forms of rhetoric they also employ in their private and public lives.


These are legal problems as well as political ones. John Brown sacrificed his life and the lives of his sons to fight for profound change. It would be the height of hubris to pretend that I intend literally to sacrifice my life and those of my loved ones for this cause, or to feign I would take my goals to their logical and most radical conclusions. I aspire, however, to devote much of my life towards achieving real equality for women and to emulate Brown in the depth of his conviction, if not the tactics.

It will require considerable courage – in addition to many other enviable qualities – to make the deep, pervasive, and meaningful changes that are necessary. Political correctness and religious tolerance are used to defend and enshrine abuse; women who dare to speak out are vilified as “feminazis”; and many of the world’s worst perpetrators are geopolitically shielded because they have oil, nuclear weapons, or some other chit more valuable than women’s bodies and freedoms. To take on these possibly insurmountable obstacles and threats that have been rooted in society since its inception, we challengers will need the courage to face the inevitable backlash and to charge ahead when progress seems unreachable.

Contrary what the current political discourse would suggest, the “War on Women” is not being fought between Republicans and Democrats. This so-called war, older and more entrenched than all other metaphorical culture wars, is largely a worldwide rout. It will remain so, unless more people join the right side of the fight. John Brown did not end slavery, nor did Martha Tharaud rid the U.S. of at-will employment. Still, they had the bravery and courage of conviction to fight on in the face of true adversity and seeming impossibility. I hope I continue to build the courage and skills it will require as a lawyer, a policymaker, and a woman, to help turn the tide.

I think that there are some important improvements here. I think, taking the present draft on its own merits, that the tone suffers now from too much of what in a man's writing might be called "breast-beating." It's the drum notes, I think: the lists of virtues it will require of you to undertake the hard and noble work you have chosen, etc. They're too overwhelmingly present: there's no human lightness of touch.

The sense of stiffness is emphasized by the peculiar combination of Martha Tharaud and John Brown, who are maneuvered in duo as though there were really any substantial similarity between an elderly Jewish labor lawyer in Manhattan at the end of the 20th century and the post-Puritan antislavery militant evangelist, only one of whom is real. Talking about them separately might add something to your own thoughts, though it would be hard to see how either is systematically necessary. Treating them as joint avatars of anything seems freighted with potential absurdity.

So in the end, the essay proclaims that you're gonna need courage. In its martial tone, with its drumbeat rhythm, it might even be one of those self-motivating, you can do it rituals, soaring anthems about how you gotta have heart, that Broadway so loved in the 20th century.

But I think a draft that tried a more urbane tone, including elements of irony, for example, and reduced the semi-apprehensive paen to future courage, however necessary, would be fruitful. Isn't the most useful courage the stuff that doesn't have to advertise itself?


Webs Webs

r11 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:56 - IanSullivan
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