Equal: Women Reshape American Law

By FRED STREBEIGH

Lest we take for granted the rights that today’s women expect, Fred Strebeigh creates a compelling tale of how hard — and how recently — women worked to get us here. More behind-the-scenes and personal than straight legal narrative, Equal: Women Reshape American Law combines the author’s interviews and exclusive archival access to create a revealing account of the groundbreaking cases involving women’s rights. Flexing his journalistic storytelling muscle, the author portrays plaintiffs, lawyers, and judges as complex characters with financial woes, competing agendas, and setbacks. The unfolding legal battles become dramatic as the reader develops an emotional attachment to the people who made change happen. Strebeigh’s standout section is about sexual harassment. Here he chronicles the ways that judges ruled against women, because not only did the problem “have no law,” it “also had no recognition, no politics, no movement, and no awareness to the nation. Perhaps most remarkably, it had no name.” It took until 1986 for the Supreme Court to rule in favor of one woman who was consistently harassed and coerced by her boss. Without the efforts of women law students and professors to imagine creative new interpretations of the law, beginning in 1976, such a victory would have been unlikely. Strebeigh tackles the political motivations behind decisions, including a skeptical Chief Justice Rehnquist’s surprising majority opinion on sexual harassment, one that made him appear pro–civil rights just before his nomination for chief justice. Guiding readers to understand how laws against racism paved the way for monumental decisions involving gender, the author zooms in on some stars, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Catharine MacKinnon, and a host of perseverant plaintiffs. The book begins with a widowed father’s quest to get the Social Security benefits a single mother would, then moves to discuss pregnancy, barriers facing women lawyers, harassment, and violence. This dynamic account of legal wranglings is accessible to anyone interested in how greater equality between the sexes came to our fair country, not too long ago.

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