A Generation After “Becoming Gentlemen”


Posted on March 23rd, 2009 by Katherine Franke
 4 comments  

In 1995 Lani Guinier, Michelle Fine, Jane Balin, Ann Bartow & Deborah Lee Batchel published a study of the gender-based bias and stratification of the law school experience at Penn Law School.  Becoming Gentlemen: Women’s Experience at One Ivy League Law School, 143 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1 (1995).    I often mention this article in my teaching, urging students to reflect on the role of gender not only in the law but in their legal education.  When I referred this spring in my 1L class to the findings of Becoming Gentlemen, one of the students pushed back, saying that the insights of Guinier et al.’s work may no longer hold true, or at least doesn’t hold true at Columbia.  I asked her if she’d be willing to write something about why, and here it is – Katherine Franke

Unlike the accounts described in Becoming Gentlemen, my own experience as a woman in Law School has been ortapositive, in the sense that I have never felt prejudice or experienced a barrier because of my gender. I have never been called a “lesbian” or “feminazi dyke” because I expressed my opinion in class. Nor  have I ever been berated by a professor. I have also never thought my chances for academic or workplace success were limited because of my gender (In fact, women at Columbia have earned some of the highest markers of academic excellence, such as Editor in Chief of the Law Review and finalists in the Stone Moot Court competition).

Gender is so far in the background, such a “non-issue,” that questions of gender are not really discussed or thought of amongst my peers. As one friend remarked, “When I discuss gender stereotypes, domestic violence, or rape, I feel like alot of people don’t get it and don’t really care to.” I am one of those people. Without the efforts of friends such as the one above, I would likely forget that my life could have a gendered dimension because it is not part of my daily experience.

While I had a hard time relating to the experiences of the surveyed women, what most confused me was the way minorities were simply “lumped in” with their respective gender and the nuances of their individual experiences were ignored. The piece initially left the impression that minority women were most readily singled out because of their gender. Meanwhile, it portrayed minority men as heavy participants in gender discrimination and equal beneficiaries of the “good old boy” network.

In my own experience, the opposite is true. There is far greater discrimination and informal barriers to success because of race than gender. For example, there are few (2, that I know of) Hispanic professors at Columbia and they do not teach 1Ls. There are no cases in Con Law which describe the significant contributions towards the development of Civil Rights law by Latinos. In Crim Law, Latino is the assumed race of drug dealers.

Latino 1Ls have informally agreed to support one another in the classroom. We have formed groups and blogs to educate ourselves about issues (such as Critical Race Theory, Immigration, famous Latino cases and important Latino legal organizations) which are mostly ignored by the curriculum and faculty. We acutely feel the pressure to “represent” our community in the classroom and (someday) in the courtroom. Most importantly, we all, male and female, have felt the need to come together as a support group in a (sometimes openly) hostile environment.

A close reading reveals, however, that minority men and women in the study expressed similar views and had similar experiences 20 years ago. In the footnotes, Black/Latino men and women both expressed similar desires to “help their community” and to “represent their people.”

There was not a single example given of a Latina or African-American woman who showed a strong identity with white women on the issue of gender in the school. Rather, their statements closely mirror those of the minority men. This correlation makes it difficult to say that the experience of law school was simply “gendered”. Rather, it appears that it was more of “white male” vs. everyone else.

What is disturbing to me, however, is that these problems of race were present 20 years ago and, unlike the issues facing white women, have not been sufficiently addressed. Surveys which exclusively focus on the “gendered” experience, at the expense of race, only add to this problem because they allow a false sense of “mission accomplished.” Under the rubric offered in Becoming Gentlemen, as long as white women’s experiences improve, then both minority men and women can be “left behind”; their needs and issues delegitmatized and unaddressed.

I understand that this may place a difficult standard on researchers who seek to focus only on one variable or who are most interested in the gendered experience. But the fact that things have changed so little for many minority students, including minority women, while they have changed so dramatically for white women is something that should not be accepted by researchers interested in gender. I hope these researches are aware of the way their observations on gender and race can influence policies and perceptions, and I challenge them to confront the nuances that race adds to the experience of gender.

Priscilla Orta

4 comments

  1. I am a second-year law student and I read Becoming Gentlemen the summer after completing my first year. Unlike the writer of this post, I found myself identifying with many of the narratives in the study. In particular, the consistent accounts of a male-gendered law school pedagogy resonate with my own experience.
    Moreover, how far have we truly come in raising the level of consciousness among ourselves as students? At my school, a woman will almost never self-identify as a feminist. Raising “feminist issues” even in the more progressive classes still brings on drones of “here we go again” comments. I guess we cannot expect much more however when we even have Sandra Day O’Connor recently refusing to identify as a feminist.
    My point is simply that Becoming Gentlemen is an important study for all of us – students and our institutions. And I think we do have a long way to go.

  2. I agree with Ms. Orta that racial discrimination is still pervasive in law school and I think she points out important gaps in the Becoming Gentleman surveys. I second Ms. Orta’s challenge to researchers to confront issues of race and to grapple with the ways in which race intersects with gender. I also applaud the efforts of Latino/Latina 1Ls who are pushing for equality and social change.

    But I hesitate to call gender a “non-issue” at Columbia Law School. As one of Ms. Orta’s peers, I would say that questions of gender are indeed discussed by a sizeable group of students here. While I can’t speak for everyone, I know the number one reason I myself hoped to attend Columbia Law School above any other law school was because of Columbia’s demonstrated commitment to the issue of gender, as evidenced by its Program in Sexuality and Gender Law and its Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic (both of which are the first and only programs of their kind in the nation). In fact, I was (sadly) surprised that, despite Columbia’s cutting-edge gender law programs, my experience at Columbia Law School has left me feeling more insecure and inferior because of my gender identity than ever before. Perhaps it is the institution of law school (and the way it is structured) in general, rather than Columbia Law School in particular, that has resulted in this feeling. Regardless, I would say that, with respect to both race _and_ gender, the “mission” has not yet been accomplished.

  3. I agree with Ms. Orta that racial discrimination is still pervasive in law school and I think she points out important gaps in the Becoming Gentleman surveys. I second Ms. Orta’s challenge to researchers to confront issues of race and to grapple with the ways in which race intersects with gender. I also applaud the efforts of Latino/Latina 1Ls who are pushing for equality and social change.

    But I hesitate to call gender a “non-issue” at Columbia Law School. As one of Ms. Orta’s peers, I would say that questions of gender are indeed discussed by a sizeable group of students here. While I can’t speak for everyone, I know the number one reason I myself hoped to attend Columbia Law School above any other law school was because of Columbia’s demonstrated commitment to the issue of gender, as evidenced by its Program in Sexuality and Gender Law and its Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic (both of which are the first and only programs of their kind in the nation). In fact, I was (sadly) surprised that, despite Columbia’s cutting-edge gender law programs, my experience at Columbia Law School has left me feeling more insecure and inferior because of my gender identity than ever before. Perhaps it is the institution of law school (and the way it is structured) in general, rather than Columbia Law School in particular, that has resulted in this feeling. Regardless, I would say that, with respect to both race _and_ gender, the “mission” has not yet been accomplished.

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