In Pursuit of Equality: Women, Public Policy, and the Federal Courts

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Editorial Reviews

Georgia Duerst-Lahti
This book succeeds in bridging the often distant gap between legal scholars and students of public policy. For that alone it is noteworthy. It also "traces the development of sexual equality in federal laws since 1960" (p.5), and does so thoroughly within the context of American federal courts. This text deserves to find its way into a wide variety of classrooms, and onto the shelves of scholars new to feminist perspectives on laws pertaining to sexual equality, or policy generalists who wish to round out the judicial area. Mezey merges her interests in the federal judiciary as a policy-making institution with the study of American women and fills a notable gap by doing so. Unlike many important works about women and the law that employ a case law approach, such as Leslie Friedman Goldstein's THE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS OF WOMEN, Mezey stays firmly rooted within a policy framework. Each topic is placed within its larger context, including historical background and a review of pertinent congressional and the executive branch action. In addition, the story of each case is also told, usually in much greater detail than case law approaches afford. Such background serves as crucial material for teaching about policy. It illustrates the circumstances driving an issue onto the public agenda, why it went to the courts, the manner in which courts formulated the question, as well as the reasoning behind the decision, and subsequent implementation. Students will likely find this approach engaging, and come away with a more complete understanding of judicial policy. While women and laws affecting them are the specific topic of this work, lessons about the courts as a policy making body clearly can also be learned. Policy scholars better versed in legislative and executive arenas might find this a useful addition for its illustrations of judicial policy dynamics. In many regards, the book provides enough analysis about the dynamics of judicial policy to make its specific subject irrelevant. But sexual equality in federal law is indeed the topic of this book. It provides a synopsis of the ideology of separate spheres, sets out the development of levels of scrutiny, (including a lucid analysis of levels of scrutiny accessible to non-law specialists), and critiques the equal protection doctrine. Three chapters are devoted to the formation and development of equal employment opportunities laws. Among other topics, disparate impact theory and contemporary conflicts about affirmative action receive attention. Chapters are also devoted to wage discrimination, pregnancy and employment, equality in education, and sexual harassment. The chapter on equality in the professions may be of particular interest to academics who can find ample examples to draw upon. Abortion receives two chapters, one of which traces the development of the right to choose -- including Justice O'Connor's dissent in AKRON -- the other covers the narrowing of choice up to and through post-Webster politics. The publisher and Mezey should be complimented on producing a book that is remarkably current -- as recent as October 1990. The book also takes a general approach that draws upon a wide range of resources, and is written in engaging and accessible language without losing its high standards. For example, the chapter Page 12 follows: on the professions ends with a discussion of the 'mommy track' that points out the nature of problems women face along with the limits of judicial remedies. Discussion of the narrowing of abortion options begins with the New York Times headline for the day WEBSTER was decided, moves to a description of attendant prochoice rallies in Washington D.C., then turns to legal considerations. With 60 to 80 endnotes for each chapter, and a careful blend of court cases, scholarly works, and newspaper coverage, Mezey thoroughly documents and optimally uses resources to analyze sexual equality policy. This work is very scholarly without being dull. The book is written from a feminist perspective and intends to show intrafeminist debates about the best way to achieve equality, end discrimination, and empower women. Throughout Mezey tries to demonstrate "the influence of both liberal and radical feminism in the struggle to advance women's rights" (p.3). However, as she herself recognizes, because of liberal feminism's heavy reliance on legal remedies, the book inevitably is rooted in liberal feminist assumptions and so inescapably must react to them. For example, analyses of pregnancy and employment laws stumble over wording of preferential treatment, traditional equality theory (as the same treatment), and equal opportunity treatment for "episodic analyses." In an intelligent synthesis of alternative feminist critiques, Mezey lays out the problems with current legal remedies, but can devote only about five of 26 pages to the critique. Also, despite endnotes that show more sophisticated renderings, feminist thought is divided into two only strands, liberal and radical. Advanced feminist scholars will find little new here; however, most will probably agree that this is among the better texts for introducing debates about sexual equality policy. The above shortcoming might have been ameliorated through a longer introductory chapter and a concluding chapter. Because the book is poised to become a reference text for policy scholars who want to venture into the specialty of sexual equality policy, a more extended discussion of intrafeminist debates might have been worth the effort. Similarly, women's studies scholars who know little about the policy process, and especially the courts as policy makers, might have benefitted from more information about them. For use as a text, this book's closest rival, WOMEN'S RIGHTS IN THE U.S.A.: POLICY DEBATES & GENDER ROLES, by Dorothy McBride Stetson opens with a discussion of the policy-making process and the feminist debate. On the other hand, Mezey pitches to a more advanced audience of upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and perhaps nonspecialist scholars so reallocates the space to extensive, more sophisticated endnotes and a higher level of analysis generally. IN PURSUIT OF EQUALITY is a first-rate piece of scholarship, written very accessibly. Though it developed out of a women and the law course, it would be appropriate in women and politics courses, general policy making courses, and judicial process courses. In addition, scholars looking for a resource book that helps them enter this area might find this to be particularly attractive. Mezey has filled a niche at the juncture of the literature on policy, on women, and on politics, and she has done so skillfully.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312065201
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/1991
  • Pages: 295

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