Taking Stock: A Symposium Celebrating the NYS Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts,” a daylong event at NYU Law on April 5 co-sponsored by the New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts and the NYU Review of Law & Social Change, observed the committee’s 25th year of addressing the concerns of women litigants, attorneys, and court employees.

The lineup of prominent speakers included committee chair Betty Weinberg Ellerin ’52, the first woman appointed as an associate justice of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court (First Department), who welcomed attendees; Elaine Jones, the first female president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, who gave the opening address; and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, who provided concluding remarks. Jonathan Lippman ’68, chief judge of New York State, appeared by video.
The symposium’s panels addressed topics including the origins of the committee, family law, and violence against women. Among the panelists were Martin Guggenheim ’71, Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Clinical Law; Dorchen Leidholdt ’88, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families; and Jane Manning ’95, president of the National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter.

Steinem, suffering from a flare-up of trigeminal neuralgia, a condition that sometimes causes intense jaw pain, had Jill Laurie Goodman ‘75, the committee’s counsel, read her words to the attendees. The speech included a quotation about the human trafficking of women and girls in the U.S., revealing only belatedly that the description came from an 1893 book by the feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage. The problem was not a new one.

“Does anyone have the right to sell anyone else’s body?” said Goodman in Steinem’s words. “Absolutely not. Does each of us have a right to sell our own body? Yes. But I have to say that after nearly 40 years of talking with prostituted women, children, and men, I’ve met only three who said that they did so without fear, economic need, or childhood abuse that convinced them early and deep that they had nothing but a sexual value. The problem is that as soon as we call it ‘sexuality,’ all bets of balance and equality are off, by calling something ‘religion’ or ‘national interest.’ When it comes to the cult of gender, ideas are hard to challenge or even to see as open to challenge, because they are exaggerated versions of the earliest ways we may have been taught to see people as groups rather than as unique individuals. Our ideas of dominant and passive, subject and object may literally feel like home.”

Steinem’s remarks explicitly linked violence to ideas about gender: “Even now, our media almost never remark on the fact that the cult of masculinity is the heart of terrorism, whether in the home as domestic violence or in the street as political violence. The cult of femininity also supports the fiction of masculinity. We must take responsibility for our failure to name it, to resist it, and to rebel. When violence is normalized and disguised as sexuality, we must all name that lie.... Democracy starts with our bodies.”

Posted on April 7, 2011