Why do we have the particular family structures that we have today? Ariela Dubler looks to our legal past to understand the present landscape of family relations. Trained in both law and history at Yale, Prof. Dubler began teaching at Columbia this fall.
"I am interested in family law because it's an area with a rich history of social, legal, and political reform," she explains. "It's also an area in which many of the subjects of debate and reform in the middle of the 19th century are still subjects of debate today."
Prof. Dubler finds that students in her course, The Family and State in Historical Perspective, are surprised by how much the study of history contributes to their understanding of legal doctrine. Among other issues, she devotes considerable time to historical changes in assumptions about gender and how these changes have influenced the evolution of family law. Historically, marriage constituted the primary site for defining women's legal, social, and political rights. Women, for example, did not vote because it was thought that their husbands voted for them.
Prof. Dubler is particularly interested in where single women fit into a legal system that generally equated women with wives, a topic she is exploring in an article to be published in the Yale Law Journal titled "In the Shadow of Marriage: Single Women and the Legal Construction of the Family and the State."
"Histories of the family and of marriage often assume that single women's intimate lives existed outside of the law's regulatory powers because they stood outside of marriage," she says. "In fact, the relationship between marriage and ‘nonmarriage' was more complicated. Single women's rights were defined in relation to marriage and, conversely, the meaning of marriage was forged through the legal regulation of unmarried women."
Prof. Dubler might have embarked on another career path entirely if she had not happened to take an undergraduate course in legal history as a student at Harvard. She was instantly hooked on exploring the historical antecedents of contemporary law, an experience she hopes to pass on to her Law School students.
"Especially in family law, courts and legislators invoke history all the time as the rationale for contemporary solutions to contemporary problems," she says. "If you study history, you have the tools to evaluate the arguments lawyers make about the way marriage and the family ‘have always been.'"