In a video Q&A Serena Mayeri, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, discusses her new book Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution.
Serena Mayeri: The book is called Reasoning from Race, and what I mean by that is a number of different strategies that feminists used during the 1960s and ‘70s to make the case that sex discrimination was a problem that was worthy of attention.
The most fun part of researching and writing this book was the opportunity to have access to the papers of various individuals and groups who were involved in the litigation and legislative campaigns and other advocacy efforts that I’m talking about. I looked at the papers of individuals like Pauli Murray, who is a central figure in my story - she was an African American lawyer who pioneered these race-sex analogies as the reasoning for the race strategy in the early ‘60s up through the early ’70s, which was then picked up by people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, who litigated a lot of the sex equality cases in the 1970s.
One case that I found particularly fascinating in my research was a challenge by a young African American woman, Katie Mae Andrews, to a policy in New Orleans where the schools districts banned unwed mothers from teaching school. Miss Andrews wanted to be a teacher and she went to a local civil rights attorney, who then collaborated with feminists at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. They made arguments to the federal court in Mississippi, and later took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But when it got there, the very rich intersections between race and sex and sexuality and employment and reproductive freedom were bleached out of the case. And I use this case as an example to show how, in many instances, African American women plaintiffs brought really pivotal sex equality cases to the courts, only to find that by the time they reached the Supreme Court, the really compelling aspects of their case were obscured.
One of the things I’m trying to do in the book is to dispel what I think is the myth about 1970s feminist legal advocacy - that feminists were very focused on the concerns of white middle class women, not concerned with racial justice or with economic justice, or with the connections between reproductive freedom and economic and racial equality.
What came out of the Supreme Court was not what feminists put in, but was something much more limited – a much less capacious vision of equality than what feminists were advancing. And I hope that my book, along a number of different dimensions, can give a richer picture of what feminists did present to the court, much of which was rejected, but is still, I think, really worthy of being exhumed.
This transcript was edited for length.