Formative Projects, Formative Influences: Of Martha Albertson Fineman and Feminist, Liberal, and Vulnerable Subjects

By McClain, Linda C. | Emory Law Journal, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Formative Projects, Formative Influences: Of Martha Albertson Fineman and Feminist, Liberal, and Vulnerable Subjects


McClain, Linda C., Emory Law Journal


Introduction

Martha Albertson Fineman is a truly generative scholar. She generates significant and transformative scholarship, causing people to think in new ways about keywords like "dependency," "autonomy," and "vulnerability," and basic institutions such as family and state. She also generates conversations (uncomfortable1 and otherwise, crossing disciplinary and other boundaries) and, in so doing, sparks the generation of new scholarship by others, through her founding and directing of (since the 1980s) the Feminism and Legal Theory (FLT) Project and (in the last decade) the Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative. I count myself among those who have benefitted from both forms of her generativity.2 It is fitting and timely that the editors of Emory Law Journal honor her with this tribute issue. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to it.

This Essay reflects on Professor Fineman's generative scholarship by revisiting my engagement with her work over the years. Such revisiting is, in a sense, an intellectual autobiography, since I trace the shifting areas of concern in my scholarship and the role of various formative influences upon it. Often those influences were in evident, but productive, tension, such as with feminism and liberalism. In this revisiting, I also observe some critical shifts in Fineman's own scholarly projects, such as from dependency to vulnerability and from a gender lens to a skepticism about a focus on identities. Another formative influence I discuss in this Essay is Fineman's enormously generative contribution to the development of scholarship by creating spaces for sharing and critiquing scholarship, through the FLT Project and, more recently, the Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative.

I. Feminist and Liberal Formative Influences

A. The Geography of Influence

When I began my career as a law professor, I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, equidistant (more or less) from two law schools-Columbia University and N.Y.U. That geographical positioning had both practical and symbolic significance. In the 1990s, my initial work as a feminist legal scholar argued for the merits of liberal feminism, despite pervasive feminist critiques of liberal legal and political theory and liberalism. In my first law review article, I argued that prominent strands of feminist jurisprudence presented a caricatured picture of liberalism as "exalt[ing] rights over responsibilities, separateness over connection," justice over care, "and the individual over the community."3 I focused particularly on relational feminism, or "difference feminism," often inspired by Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice and articulated by such feminist legal scholars as Robin West and Suzanne Sherry.4 Challenging the model of "atomistic man" attributed to liberalism and feminist critiques of such liberal ideals as autonomy, I examined the liberal theories of political philosopher John Rawls and legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin to illustrate common ground between liberal theory and relational feminist theory around issues like the relationship between justice and care.5 Alongside those efforts to show affinities in bodies of "grand theory," my early work also focused on concrete issues like privacy rights, reproductive rights and responsibilities, and welfare reform.6

Two significant spaces in which I wrestled with these tensions between feminism and liberalism were Professor Fineman's FLT Project, newly relocated to Columbia University,7 and the Colloquium on Law, Philosophy, and Political Theory (the Colloquium), convened by legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin and philosopher Thomas Nagel at N.Y.U. As an LL.M. student at N.Y.U. I took that Colloquium, which provided the chance to deepen my understanding of liberal political and legal theory and to wrestle with bringing feminist perspectives to bear on such theory. As a new professor, I continued to attend the Colloquium and enjoyed the intellectual community it afforded. …

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