The case against shackling mothers

Feminist Legal Studies

October 18, 1996

While it would be unrealistic to suggest that the days of teaching law as a black letter subject are completely dead and buried, nowadays, Roman law, jurisprudence and landlord and tenant law are likely to find themselves competing for students against subject as diverse as feminist legal studies, law and literature, health-care law and ethics and law and social policy.

Those lawyers whose legal education predated this might wonder exactly what exactly feminist legal studies is, and why there is a need for such a journal. A glance at the contents will reveal that the subject is far wider than one might expect. However, promoting feminist legal studios as a discrete subject is not without its difficulties. Discrimination against women is endemic both in the law itself, and, even more disturbingly, in judicial attitudes towards women. For example, in a recent stalking case a judge was lambasted for commenting that an attractive woman who dressed in a certain manner should not be entitled to complain when a man found her desirable.

In two further cases, orders were made enabling hospitals to carry out nonconsensual caesarean sections against women because the judge deemed them incapable of weighing up relevant information, notwithstanding the fact that their own doctors judged them competent. The judge who decided the cases held that there is a power at common law to authorise the use of "reasonable force" in treatment, as a result of which, the prospect of women shackled to delivery beds or forced to submit to corrective fetal surgery becomes frighteningly real.

Much-needed legal reform of issues such as domestic violence and the disproportionate imprisonment of women for nonviolent offences should be seen as a matter of human rights law rather than a marginal feminist issue. It is for this reason that Feminist Legal Studies should be seen as relevant. Started in 1993, this impressive journal, marshalled by a strong editorial team, achieves its reputation through a lively mixture of articles commissioned not just from established writers but also the less well known. Each journal contains between four and six substantial articles, UK and international case notes, a book review section and a bulletin board.

Those scouring the journal for articles on well-trodden subjects such as abortion, sexual harassment and pornography will find them alongside a refreshingly broad array of items, such as Philip Thomas's thought-provoking. "The nuclear family, ideology and Aids in the Thatcher years'', Sheila Duncan's "Disrupting the surface of order and innocent: towards a theory of sexuality and the law'' and Katherine O'Donovan's authoritative, "Marriage: a sacred or profane love machine''. Articles which do cover subjects most commonly associated with feminist studies, do so from a refreshingly original perspective, such as Sally Sheldon's robust article, "Who is the mother to make the judgement: the constructions of woman in English abortion law''. Many of the papers come from a European or international perspective, Michele L. Bergeron's account of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, which looks at the systematic oppression of "rogue mothers'' being a particularly powerful critique of law and psychiatry.

The journal is sufficiently contemporary to include items which a more intellectually snobbish journal might omit, such as Hazel Biggs's review of Michael Crichton's sexual harassment novel Disclosure. The one pity is that the journal only appears twice yearly and that it is not well publicised. Each thought-provoking edition deserves to be read by people who would not instinctively gravitate towards a feminist, or, indeed a legal journal.

Julie Stone is lecturer in law and ethics, Medical School, University of Birmingham.

Feminist Legal Studies: (twice a year)

Editor - A collective of women at Kent Law School
ISBN - ISSN 0966 3622
Publisher - Deborah Charles Publications
Price - £15.00 UK £17.00 non-UK

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs

Research Fellow in Digital Manufacturing


Senior Content Manager


Lecturer in Social Work


Research Associate