Law symposium discusses intersection of race and gender

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Friday, Feb.  8, the William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender and Social Justice hosted a symposium on race and identity politics. The symposium featured discussions centered around a myriad of topics such as gender and the medicalization of women, the intersections of race, gender and access to social power and criminal justice reform.  

Natasha Phidd, the journal’s senior article editor, explained that the goal of the symposium was to discuss identity politics and the meanings attached to the term.  

“Effectively, what we’re looking at is identity politics kind of has a specific meaning, and people tend to prescribe to a certain identity, whether it’s broad or narrow,” Phidd said. “We’re trying to see what that means in terms of certain legal analysis and certain topics that might affect people.”  

The journal is celebrating its 25th anniversary as well as a new name. Formerly known as the Journal of Women and the Law, the journal renamed itself this year in an attempt to more clearly convey its goals. Editor-in-Chief Eydsa La Paz said that the name change is part of an effort to most effectively represent both the journal’s content and objectives. 

“We’ve not only just focused on women; we’ve always been focusing on intersectionality,” La Paz said. “I am so proud that we’re able to say that volume 25 finally has a name that reflects the scholarship that this journal has been doing since day one.” 

“We’ve not only just focused on women; we’ve always been focusing on intersectionality,” La Paz said. “I am so proud that we’re able to say that volume 25 finally has a name that reflects the scholarship that this journal has been doing since day one.” 

The symposium began with a panel discussion by Vice President of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and assistant professor of government and gender, sexuality and women’s studies Ann Kennedy.  

Acknowledging that many young adults do not grow up aspiring to become a menstrual activist, Weiss-Wolf began by talking about the Facebook post that led her to the activist role she holds today.  

Jan. 1, 2015, Weiss-Wolf read a Facebook post about two young teenagers collecting tampons and pads for the community food pantry. The post also included a message explaining why these items are often not available at food pantries.  

“I have to say it was one of the most stunning and shocking things I’d ever experienced,” Weiss-Wolf said. “I had this very visceral reaction to it. I was just kind of floored that as a lifelong advocate for issues of democracy and justice, and especially for reproductive justice, that I had honestly never, ever thought of that.”

“I have to say it was one of the most stunning and shocking things I’d ever experienced,” Weiss-Wolf said. “I had this very visceral reaction to it. I was just kind of floored that as a lifelong advocate for issues of democracy and justice, and especially for reproductive justice, that I had honestly never, ever thought of that.”

Weiss-Wolf noticed that while there were some mentions in social media about the lack of menstrual products provided for free, there was no attempt to systematically change how these products were provided. According to Weiss-Wolf, Western discourse hushed topics surrounding menstruation with a stigma that women’s bodies should not be discussed. 

Her inspiration turned into an essay which she sent to Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times. 

The first policy she campaigned for was the Tampon Tax, and she went on to campaign for providing free menstrual products for children in public schools and incarcerated women.  

At the end of Weiss-Wolf’s discussion, La Paz introduced the topic of reproductive justice by discussing the Equal Rights Amendment. 

“At the end of the day, you guys know that we in Virginia are kind of looking at Virginia to see if Virginia is going to be the one state so that we can pass the Equal Rights Amendment,” La Paz said. “If you think about it, it’s kind of silly that we have to be arguing for compromise when arguably these are all things we should have had from the get-go because these are rights, not equites, and it’s sad that in 2019 we’re still fighting for equity.”   

Kennedy followed Weiss-Wolf’s conversation by discussing an article she wrote on Carrie Buck, a woman who was forcibly sterilized while an inmate of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, and how her case impacted the future of North Carolina law and sterilization abuse. 

At the end of the panel discussion, La Paz spoke about the relationship between the topics Weiss-Wolf and Kennedy discussed. 

“At the end of the day, both of our speakers have been able to put forth the idea that arguably reproductive justice, which Ms. Kennedy focuses on, cannot be achieved without first eliminating the things that violate the bodily integrity and autonomy of women, which is what Mrs. Weiss-Wolf focuses on,” La Paz said. “And if we think about the things that women unfortunately are not having at their disposal, then things like reproductive justice cannot be achieved because, again, we’re not at an equal standing with the rest of society.” 

The panel discussion ended with a question-and-answer period. One audience member enquired whether fighting for policy to make sterilization easier to access for women would put communities vulnerable to sterilization abuse in an even more vulnerable position. 

Kennedy answered by discussing how activists working for women’s reproductive justice need to shift from a mindset focused on individual rights to one more concentrated on collective liberties. 

 “I should be able to go into the doctor and tell them what I want to do with my body,” Kennedy said. “And I don’t actually agree with that. But I do think that there’s a conversation that has to take place about reproductive justice and reproductive justice education that too many people don’t want to hear, that are focused on individual choice and that has to do with health care; it has to do with representation.”