Gender and Sexuality Law Program Honors Influential Scholarship of Martha Nussbaum

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New York, February 16, 2009
— The Gender and Sexuality Law Program at Columbia Law School honored the contributions of renowned scholar Martha Nussbaum to the field of gender and sexuality law with an inaugural symposium on February 13.

Throughout the all-day event, panelists wrestled with the implications of Nussbaum’s writing for such topics as litigating marriage rights for same-sex couples and the advancement of the rights of women globally, moving fluidly between the realms of theory and practice. Nussbaum concluded the symposium with a keynote address that responded to questions and critiques presented during the day.

Law School Professors Katherine Franke and Suzanne Goldberg, who co-direct the Gender and Sexuality Law Program, established the annual symposium in order to recognize the work of a leading senior scholar in these fields. “Her work shows us how a thick commitment to justice can extend not only to the dignity claims made by poor women in India, same-sex couples seeking to marry in California, and disabled people living anywhere, but to animals in circuses and factory farms as well,” said Franke about why the Program chose Nussbaum for their first symposium.  “She challenges us to think hard about complex problems, and complexly about hard problems.”

Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago with joint appointments in the Philosophy Department, Law School and Divinity School. Her pioneering scholarship spans the fields of law, classics, political philosophy, cognitive science, and ethics, and probes such issues as liberal humanism, the role of moral psychology in legal argument, gender- and sexuality-based justice, and development policy.
“The academic study of law is more than the acquisition of knowledge, than learning one field,” said David M. Schizer, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, in his introduction of Nussbaum. “To do this work well, you have to be interdisciplinary. There’s nobody who exemplifies that conception of the scholar better than Martha Nussbaum.”

Reflective of Nussbaum’s multidisciplinary rigor, the symposium panels comprised professors of law, history, sociology, political science and women’s studies.

In the first panel, law professors Carlos Ball (Rutgers), Nancy Levit (University of Missouri-Kansas City) and Tracy Higgins (Fordham) presented papers on the intersection – and sometimes clash – of feminism and liberalism.

The second panel, titled “History, Identity and Sexuality,” featured Professor Mary Anne Case of University of Chicago Law School; Alice Kessler-Harris, professor of American history at Columbia University; and Janet Jakobsen, the director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. The panelists explored Nussbaum’s work on the history of sexuality and its implications for the same-sex marriage movement today.

During the final panel, Columbia University professor of sociology Saskia Sassen, Amherst College professor of political science and women’s and gender studies Amrita Basu, and University of Wisconsin – Madison professor of political science and women’s studies Aili Tripp addressed Nussbaum’s work in the context of gender and development. Panelists probed the implications of Nussbaum’s capabilities approach – which measures the development of a society by its support of opportunities for, or “capabilities” of, individuals rather than by their functioning – for women’s economic and political positions in the globalizing world.

In her keynote speech, Nussbaum discussed two primary issues her career as a philosopher has examined – philosophical reflection about the emotions, and normative political philosophy – and the connections of this scholarship to her work on gender. She also addressed the papers given and questions posed by each panelist and sparked additional questions from the audience.

After the symposium, a reception brought attendees and speakers together to meet and discuss the ideas raised throughout the day, helping to cultivate the spirit of community that Franke and Goldberg envisioned for the conference.

“I’m an avid follower of Martha Nussbaum’s scholarship,” said Esha Bhandari ’10, who as an undergraduate political science major at McGill wrote her thesis on Nussbaum's work and was excited to listen to her speak and meet her afterwards. “It was the first time I heard her talk about her work as it relates to gender and sexuality.”

Audience member Khiara Bridges ’02, who is the inaugural Center for Reproductive Rights/Columbia Law School Fellow, said, “Nussbaum’s work is so central to women and the law, I knew I’d gain something.” Bridges, who focuses predominately on reproductive rights of low-income women of color, found the analysis of Nussbaum’s theories inspiring for her own scholarship. “I was here from 9 to 6, and it was well worth it.”

Columbia Law School’s Gender and Sexuality Law Program is the only program of its kind at any law school in the country. Columbia boasts a rich and diverse number of course offerings – including the nation’s first Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic – faculty whose teaching and scholarship focus in path-breaking ways on an array of problems in the domains of sexuality and gender, and student organizations and students who share an interest in the study and practice of gender and sexuality law.

A keystone of the Gender and Sexuality Law Program is an annual symposium honoring the significant contributions of a senior scholar to the literature of gender and/or sexuality law and theory. The papers from this year’s symposium will appear in a special issue of the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law.  More information about the Gender and Sexuality Law Program is available here.


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