By Jared Misner
Toward the end of her keynote address, a man stood in the back of the crowd and asked internationally renowned feminism legal theorist and family law expert Martha Fineman if she thought her own views were just too good to be true.
Before a crowd of about 60 at the Nov. 18 event that brought five legal scholars from across the country to Gainesville to honor UF Law professor Nancy Dowd's book The Man Question, a man asked Fineman, the founder and director of the Feminism Legal Theory Project, if her views on masculinities and manhood were nothing more than wishfully "utopian."
And through a near 40-minute discussion on the legal ramifications of defining gender only on the rigid binary system of man and woman and her hopes of changing that system, Fineman would argue that she certainly hoped not.
Fineman's opening address set the stage for the rest of the day's workshop, "Asking 'The Man Question,'" where legal scholars from Tennessee to Las Vegas discussed the legal obstacles in place when asking the question of what makes a man a man and a woman a woman. The gender-bending question tangles the legal web in areas ranging from sexual harassment suits and defining what the "reasonable victim" standard is, it arises in the forceful male-only registration in the Selective Service and it stretches deep into the American household when fathers are forced into defining what roles are inherent in fatherhood vs. motherhood.
"For one thing, law relies on categories that are entrenched," Fineman said.
The utopian solution? Ending the binary classification of man vs. woman that plagues our legal systems and entering into an "everybody-is-vulnerable," multiplicity-of-identities legal structure in which the law books don't classify men solely as men or women solely as women. The law must include shared experiences, backgrounds and the knowledge that people of both genders are inherently different, Fineman said.
"It's so easy to say, 'Men behave this way, this happened because men are like that.' [But] radical egalitarianism is our goal," she said.
And in a day's worth of speeches and discussions of how we've created a man's world that invoked the mention of Ice Cube, Joe Paterno and a weeping Tim Tebow, it was evident to the audience that trying to figure out how to redefine how our legal society looks at men and women would be difficult.
"Thinking about this as a part of cultural change is critical," Dowd said.
And Ann McGinley, William S. Boyd professor of law at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, would go so far as to say the law's current gender dichotomy was not only harmful but heteronormative and reflective of an anti-gay bias.
"The law should not pressure men to prove masculinity," McGinley said. "The law should not reinforce harmful gender norms."
Touching on Dowd's criticism on the way the juvenile justice system profoundly impacts boys, particularly black boys, professor Frank Cooper from Suffolk University, had a harsh analysis of the law's gendered binary system.
"The system is profoundly gendered," Cooper said of the nation's justice system. "In addition to it being gendered, it's raced."
Through four speakers praising the work of UF Law's Nancy Dowd and UF Law's Center on Children and Families, which sponsored the workshop, Dowd and the panel of distinguished speakers asked the audience to leave with one question: If we are all not created equally, how can we apply the law to benefit us all?
Fineman's answer, while less than utopian, provides the only imperfect answer.
"We must engage the law [as is] because we cannot stand outside of it."