Some Guidelines for Feminist Legal Pedagogy

27 November 2011
November 27, 2011

Suzanne Bouclin

Law professors across the country have managed to (and often despite considerable animosity and resistance from other faculty members) ensure that law schools engage with feminist content or substance within the classroom. Fostering feminist pedagogical forms or structures, however, remains a challenge for many of us. As one of my senior colleague’s has astutely pointed out, feminist professors often feel that they simply do not have the privilege of implementing feminist teaching practices. Indeed, in my first year of teaching, I have already been publically called out as ‘pre-menstrual’ for asking a student whether he had done his readings and as having caused another student to suffer actionable emotional damages because I would not raise her grade from the C range to the A range. Every feminist professor I know has shared similar experiences with me. And so my vision for feminist form and substance in law teaching and learning remains aspirational (perhaps even overly idealistic), deeply personal (these guidelines are meant as my own rules) and contextual (fluid, unfixed, tentative, and always subject to revision).

This ‘feministo’ was declared on February 12th 2011 as part of the National Association of Women and the Law’s Leadership Summit.

Five principles of feminist pedagogy (teaching):

  1. I endeavour to critically engage with the ‘Capital P professor’ and ‘small s student’ relationship. The responsibility for feminist teaching and learning is, consequently, shared by students and professors.
  2. I endeavour to emphasize empowerment in my classroom. I have as much to learn from my students as I have to offer them.
  3. I endeavour to generate conditions of community-building and collaborative learning. Feminist movement requires intellectual spaces in which we can refine pragmatic skills that will help us all respectfully engage when faced with differences within the feminist movement.
  4. I endeavour to create participatory and ‘safe’ learning spaces. Law school learning can occur in a space where feminist students (in their multiple ways of being feminists) feel that their critiques of dominant modes of thinking and their analysis is valued and important.
  5. I endeavour to critique formal and informal legal processes that do not take into consideration women’s multiple legal subjectivities. In the feminist law classroom, there is an explicit and implicit assumption that how we experience the world is deeply rooted in our social and cultural positions based on race, class, ethnicity, sexual identity and orientation, ability, the languages we speak, and the religious practices in which we engage.

What this means:

  • Teachers are not there to tell students how the legal world ‘really’ is. That is insulting to the rich experiences of students. Students already have knowledge when they enter the classroom and may even have sharper critical analysis than their teachers.
  • Students should not dismiss their feminist professor’s knowledge, analysis, and experience.
  • Feminist teaching should foster an environment of dialogue, of information-sharing that goes both ways and in classrooms that are organized around principles of substantive equality.
  • The feminist classroom integrates multiple skillbuilding exercises including how to navigate difficult questions.
  • The responsibility for creating and protecting feminist learning spaces is also shouldered by students.
  • Feminist learning in law schools may be furthered by developing evaluation methods that take into consideration critical thinking and empathy.
  • Feminist students’ and professors’ critiques of law, legal structures and legal institutions should not be dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ to the study of law (from more orthodox sources) nor as ‘antifeminist’ (if taking a more marginal position within feminist movement).
  • We should all strive to foster conditions of discussion and dialogue that allow for grey zones, nuance, complexity and uncertainty.
  • Students should not try to dissolve the (very healthy) boundaries between themselves and their professors. Destabilizing hierarchies does not mean fostering conditions of disrespect for professors (especially professors who may well be marginalized within more orthodox learning environments).
  • There is no template for creating feminist learning environments. Each feminist classroom is a new attempt, an invitation to be selfreflexive about our teaching and learning practices.

Drafted by the author in the winter of 2011 for this manual. Please do not reproduce without permission of the author.

about NAWL
The National Association of Women and the Law is a not-for-profit feminist organization that promotes the equality rights of women through legal education, research and law reform advocacy.
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