voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit


Shauna Van Praagh (January 2016 and January 1989)

Twenty-five years ago, as a doctoral student in law at Columbia University, I sat down to write Stories in Law School: An Essay on Language, Participation and the Power of Legal Education, an article that explored the potential for effective storytelling as a way of teaching, learning and immersing oneself in law. I drew on my experience as a law student, looking ahead to what I hoped would be a lifelong identity as a law professor, and reflecting on the complex ways in which our many identities intertwine with our understandings, our responsibilities, and our actions as compassionate and constructive jurists. Today, humbled by the fact that today’s law students continue to read that first published piece of work, I turn further back to an essay I wrote in 1989 for a third year law school seminar. Below, I share reproduced excerpts with today’s students who create, write for, and read Contours, and from whom I continue to learn day after day. In the spirit of Stories in Law School, it tells a story, draws on the stories of others, and aims to articulate insights into the power and passion of a feminist search for self and community.

Every Friday [in 1988-1989], women dressed completely in black gather in French Square in the centre of Jerusalem and, from 1 – 2 p.m., stand in a circle facing outward to the busy traffic heading home for Sabbath preparations, and silently hold black signs saying simply “End the Occupation”. This is a demonstration like no other in Israel. Women in Black, numbering approximately eighty participants on any given Friday, protest without chants or violence, speeches or songs. They use their presence as women as the medium by which their message is presented…[I]t is the nature of that voice that rings out in the personal story of empowerment through Women in Black told by Susan Zeller, a volunteer at the Israel Women’s Network in the summer of 1988. As one of Susan’s co-workers at the Network, I watched and listened as she worked out her involvement with feminism and Israeli peace politics.

Women in Black provides a community for the women who take part. The bonds among the women are strong – through their common dress, their touching each other and holding out a hand to newcomers like Susan, and their communal protection from some of the passers-by who shout, jeer, even spit.

Usually, when we think of the individual and the community, we think of an entrenched and insoluble dichotomy. At certain times and for certain purposes, a person’s state of being is that of an individual, free to do as he pleases without constraint. At other times and for other purposes, he is a member in a larger community, the objectives of which may clash with personal aims…But this vision of the tension between the individual and the collective offers no substantive comprehension of real people. It portrays individuality as a way of being but ignores the enterprise of understanding the nature of individual selfhood and the capacity for becoming autonomous. Feminist theory is, however, well equipped for embarking on exactly such an enterprise. And, apart from having the credentials and perspective perhaps best suited for rethinking autonomy, feminist theory must recognize this project as vital to its own development.

I want to ask why finding my own meaning for “I” is so crucial for me as a feminist, and for feminism in general…If we see potential in an ethic of care as an alternative, positive basis for legal and political theory – and I do see such potential – we have to decide where care for self fits into the priorities of this ethic. Otherwise, helplessness, entrapment and loss of self-identity can masquerade as positive care, connectedness and community. And women surely know the possibility of oppression by a collective with shared values, and that of breakdown and pain within a relationship.

What do I want for myself? … It may be that there exists no easy straightforward answer to my query to myself. But I do know that if I answer that question from the perspective of others – even very close, related others – I am frustrated with my inability to articulate my own answer. And I also know that the self-determination, self-confidence, or autonomy I have felt at different times in my life has been exhilarating and freeing. Freeing not in the sense of isolating myself from responsibility, care and important people relations, but rather in the sense of knowing and being happy with myself and the direction in which I choose to travel.

Autonomy and connection seem to exist in a mutual conducive and integrated relationship. The collective support of Women in Black represented a lifeline to Susan Zeller – a lifeline that signified a newfound independence and confidence as an individual woman. As she wrote, “Even when I am not at a Women in Black demonstration, when I stand alone in whatever color clothing, I am confident of my abilities and my thoughts, and I feel free to translate them into action. For me, as for most, Women in Black is much more than a peace rally – it is a lifeline”. At the same time, a group like Women in Black cannot guarantee individual empowerment simply by holding out an offer of membership. If Susan had joined the circle of women demonstrators without an individual strength and conviction about her involvement in Israeli politics, or perhaps without a wish to explore her feminist beliefs and practice, she might have left on that first Friday confused and, in effect, dissolved by the interaction rather than empowered by it. But the sense of autonomy she felt had been fostered by her involvement with Women in Black was a realized fruition of the choice that she, as a true individual prepared to interact with the group, had made when she dressed in black on her first Friday in Jerusalem that summer.

What is so threatening about this new sense of self, a new language, and a new sphere in which relationships and the collective are taken seriously? When Women in Black demonstrated, the attention they got from many passers-by was directed not at their political beliefs and message. Rather it was directed to their womanhood. Men called the women prostitutes and shoved models of black widow spiders in their faces. The women were reprimanded for not being home where they belonged on a Friday afternoon only a few hours before the Sabbath dinner should be ready. Women’s participation in what is thought of as the public sphere is threatening. And Women in Black, standing woman next to woman, staring at the people in their cars and on the buses – a seemingly invincible wall of women’s bodies – is very threatening.

Not only is autonomy inseparable from personal experience and feeling, but feminist thought and practice are equally inseparable from women’s experience and feeling, both on an individual and a collective basis. To rethink autonomy we have to maintain the tension between the individual and her community, allow the individual time and space for personal transformation, infuse individuality and empowerment with connectedness and interdependence, and emerge with a concept of autonomy that co-exists with, informs, and relies upon collectivity.

It seems to me that we cannot hope to transform the meaning of ‘self’, ‘self-determination’, or ‘autonomy’ unless we look to experience. That is why one woman’s story about Women in Black may tell us more than any amount of abstract theorizing. If we listen to Susan’s voice, we open our ears to one woman’s language and its expression of self-value and self-confidence. But we also introduce a forum for many women’s voices whose stories of life are waiting to be told. Audre Lorde writes that poetry is not a luxury but a necessity of our existence. Poetry, like women’s voices, distills life’s experiences and names our ideas, hopes, dreams and actions. When women’s voices speak, they do so in a language that weaves the fabric of feminist change. Their stories, then, can never be a luxury.

I have one more story to tell. I didn’t join Women in Black because this was my first time in Israel and my two months were spent getting acquainted with the country and with Jerusalem and the Israel Women’s Network. Susan had spent almost two years in Israel on previous occasions and she was ready to stand up and be heard as a participant in the working of the country. I went to Israel on my own, knowing no one there, but somehow feeling that my connection with the country would be formed and cemented this summer and that the Israel Women’s Network would provide a supportive grounding for me as I explored Israel both from within an office concerned with the status of women and from without, travelling the length and breadth of the tiny state. I was right. With the strength we both displayed in putting the constraining expectations of those at home and school behind us, and choosing an alternative path, we came to Israel and forged new connections with the Network, and with other women, that cultivated in us a sense of self-determination – a feeling of autonomy that both results from and strengthens our feminist beliefs and concerns. We both left Israel with a self-understanding that made us feel more certain, articulate, assertive and alive.

If I think of one symbol that best illustrates for me an attempt to live our lives under a feminist quality of light, I think of Women in White, a demonstration in the Israeli Knesset on June 6, 1988 – the day I first landed in Jerusalem. On that day, women from all over the country – Jewish, Muslim and Christian – gathered with squares of fabric on which they had sewn, embroidered or painted messages of peace in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Dressed in white they carried the peace cloth, made by connecting the squares, into the Knesset and presented it to the Prime Minister with their hopes for peace. Each individual square was beautiful and strong on its own. Connected to other peace squares, each took on a new meaning and a new strength. And, when all the squares were stitched together and carried by individual women connected by a vision, the cloth was extremely powerful and empowering, impressive, wonderful and convincing. Each participant could leave the demonstration inspired, her sense of self-value heightened. Each observer must have felt awe for the dimensions and importance of the project.

Women in White spoke in a new, different voice, previously unheard. They reached across the divide from women’s homes to the seat of government. The energy of the community of Women in White empowered individual women, and individual women joined together to form that vital community. The expression, dedication and the strength of Women in White form the link between that group and the weekly Women in Black demonstrators. The togetherness of these individual women, whatever colour they wear, is crucial for powerful action. And autonomy happens with action. The capacity for autonomy is partly composed of feeling and emotion but it is partly action, a change in direction, a decision to connect, a motivation to move. Feminism, too, has these components. As we redefine and embark on individual searches for autonomy, we join hands in a collective demonstration for change – a demonstration that offers and demands both inner strength and society’s transformation”.

As I write these words for Contours on January 9, 2016 – exactly 27 years after the January 9, 1989 date typed on the cover page of my seminar paper excerpted above – I realize that individual searches for autonomy never end.  And there continue to be countless ways in which women and men, young and old, participate in our many communities and collective projects. I also realize that my own path as a teacher and perpetual student is perhaps precisely what I had in mind – without knowing it – as a young feminist jurist keen to try on black, white, and every other colour we can imagine together.

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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