A Law Professor, Research and Feminist Rhetoric

I have spent some years arguing from a position of ignorance and opinion that feminism is founded less on a desire for equal opportunities than it is on seeking extra rights for women over men, whom they despise. Having just sat through an inaugural professorial lecture by an academic lawyer, who specialises in European law with a focus on feminism and the Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights, I am more convinced that is true.

I attended with an expectation that a legal academic with a taste for evidence and rational, unbiased judgement would present a much more attractive face of feminism than I see in the papers, with images in my head of CND campaigners and Harriet Harman foaming at the mouth at the unfairness of it all. But I was wrong.

The professor did not, to her credit, talk at all like Harriet Harman, nor look like a shapeless 'Nukes Out' Greenham Common camper. She was well spoken and lucid as she presented her research, but the research was not what I expected from academics at a good university. I had, in my naïveté, assumed that most research was similar to the physics papers I read, suffused as they are with original data, error margins, logical deductions, principles and proposals for falsification.


The reality was that the research was a survey and tabulation of just over a hundred cases heard by the European Court. Not the sample size of a thousand favoured by pollsters, despite figures reported to a tenth of a percent. There was no study of failed cases. No statistical analysis of the data to find significant differences. Just cases divided up into groups based on the sexual identity of the claimants and the type of right allegedly infringed.

Everything is a Feminist Issue

The main approach taken was to recast every rights claim as a sex discrimination case if a woman was involved. So, a woman as a single parent traveller, fighting a planning decision preventing her from setting up home in a green belt, should has claimed sex discrimination. (Why? Would a man have been treated differently?) A student at a Turkish university wanted to be able to express her religious identity by wearing an Islamic headscarf should have framed the claim 'as a female autonomy case' instead of a religious freedom one. Domestic and sexual violence, since they were 'female-specific harms', should require the state to intervene pro-actively to prevent breaches of the Act. This last point prompted a (male) member of the audience to query whether these were really female specific harms (and, by implication, whether framing all infringements affecting women should be twisted into gender issues). This drew sneering, eye-rolling and "for goodness sake" responses from others - how dare a MAN critique a feminist argument!

But the point was a good one. Equality for women under the law is a good thing, and pretty much achieved already. But to grant half the population additional rights, simply on the basis of their gender, is not equality. It is a single issue group advancing the political cause of those under the feminist umbrella at the expense of those outside. And that is not good.

Trying to be Right

Is this a case of lawyers trying to win an argument instead of trying to be right? The professorial lecture the following week was by a female science education researcher, who spent her time showing evidence (real research!) that girls' and boys' brains (minds?) are objectively different, and it is possible to teach them in such a way that far fewer girls will be put off studying physics and maths. No sneers here, just questions about the implications of the data. The lady was a self identified feminist, but instead of trying to bias the legal system, she had set to to find the causes of and solutions to the problems she has identified.

OK, so the social sciences have an unhealthy regard for weak correlations and use limited experimental procedures, but they seem to stand head and shoulders over the legal-eagles.

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