Missing dessert: Women at HLS


Last Friday, my female housemates commandeered my apartment and cast me into the streets. I was not permitted to attend the women’s dessert party they were hosting. At first I wanted to stay, but eventually they convinced me that the party would in fact not include a bevy of young ladies in skimpy negligees engaged in a pillow fight, so I agreed to make myself scarce.

I have come to agree with their reasoning. Women need time to bond away from the influence of men. This holds especially true at Harvard Law School, where femininity seems under constant assault.

Women are no longer bound by the close confines of traditional gender roles. For several decades, a woman has been able to pursue a career, to choose to enter any field and aim for the top. This is a good thing. Arbitrary restrictions on thought and opportunity based on gender are the hallmark of repressive regimes. Women are not bound by strict rules anymore, and are free to be as like or unlike traditional ideals of femininity as they want to be. This means, incidentally, that those who believe that womanhood is defined as much by a commitment to abortion and Democrats as by biology are just as odious as the barefoot and pregnant sect.

Despite the freedom to act however they want, many women choose to remain feminine. If you look at the average woman’s dorm room, for instance, you’ll find more frills, more stuffed animals, different DVDs and CDs than you’d find in the average man’s room. Nobody forces women to like romantic comedies, but a lot of women do.

The problem is that the Law School does not appreciate a good John Hughes movie. There is a lot of pressure here on women, and it comes in two flavors. The first is a pressure for women to act like men; the second is an institutional reluctance to embrace (not literally) women at the law school.

Women in law are expected to embrace the core idiocies of masculinity, things like working too hard and not caring about the kids. I know there was a protracted struggle for the right to work at top jobs, but just because you have the opportunity to work 100 hours a week doesn’t mean you should. If your one burning passion is corporate law, then go for it, but a lot of people here are herded by a system of incentives along the path of least resistance to end up at certain jobs without considering whether that’s what they want. The big firm culture is not one that appreciates maternalism. Many women are inclined to be maternal and less inclined to be ruthless; the conflict between their assumed identity as vicious litigators (or tax lawyers, or appellate lawyers, or whatever) and their inclination to be decent people creates a lot of stress.

Kids add to that stress. In most cultures it’s been mandatory for women to undertake primary responsibility for childrearing. Today we do not force such duties on anybody — not having children has become an acceptable life choice, as has contracting out care. However, around HLS, things have moved beyond having a choice. Any woman here willing to sacrifice career advancement to spend time with her family seems to be treated like a sellout to the patriarchy. Women should not be forced to stay at home, but if a woman wants to, her choice should be respected. We ought to wholeheartedly support parents taking more time for the kids: Real commitment to children (in practice, not just policy) is something elite America is sorely lacking.

As if women here don’t have enough problems trying to lead a normal life against the pressure to be a super-masculine corporate gunner, they get treated like second-class students around the Law School. There are plenty of professors complicit in this who subtly patronize women in the classroom. This behavior is almost certainly not intentional, but it’s there nevertheless. The recent Law Review competition results should also give us pause — graded blindly, exams written by women tended to fare poorly. Does this mean that scholarship from a feminine point of view is not taken seriously? Do the subtle differences between male and female thinking doom female analysis to second place? The outcome of the competition is troubling at an already troubled law school.

Given all the pressures on women at the law school, the existence of an occasional safe haven where women can stop being measured and simply be themselves is a good thing. Next time my roommates want to have a women’s dessert party at my place, I won’t even think about it. I’ll just say, “Let them eat cake.”

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