Fred Strebeigh is known at Yale as a beloved, and bearded, teacher of nonfiction writing. Much of Strebeigh’s own work has been in the realm of nature writing, and he is a senior lecturer in both English and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. But his new book, which came out Friday, is a legal history two decades in the making, called “Equal: Women Reshape American Law.” Strebeigh spoke to the News over the weekend about his book and the reportage behind it.
Q: Is “Equal” a book about women getting involved in law or about the way in which the law treats women?
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A: “Equal” is a narrative legal history with an absolutely classic form. Perhaps best-known is Anthony Lewis’ book “Gideon’s Trumpet.” There are other significant books: David Garrow’s “Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade.” Richard Kluger’s “Simple Justice,” about the efforts of the entire team that worked for years and years and years to craft what became Brown v. Board of Education. So this book is in that tradition. It’s a narrative of people — usually plaintiffs and attorneys — converging in the law. The stories told are stories that also become the background for legal cases and sometimes legal change.
Q: How much legal change has happened? Are women now equal?
A: So long as the Supreme Court has eight men and one woman, the level of disproportion is one that will seem absolutely startling to legal historians in just a few decades. The current percentages of women involved in major institutions of American law are shocking. Approximately 47 percent of students in law schools are women, 35 percent of faculty members, 30 percent of bar association members, judgeships have reached about 23 percent, and for whatever reason the ratio of men to women in the Supreme Court has fallen back to a ratio that entering classes in law schools have not seen since 1971.
It’s as if an entire generation of brilliant women going through law schools is now waiting for appointments to the Court. And as those appointments come through, as we move to two women and three women and four women and begin to bounce back between four women and five women — a very natural place to be — as the demographics and the court converge, I think you’ll see remarkable shifts in the law to what will then come to seem a truly comprehensive sense of equality among men and women in the nation.
Q: How important a figure has Justice Ginsburg been in shaping the role of women in the law and the status of women under the law?
A: The pivotal moments in the career of Justice Ginsburg occurred in a remarkably short period of time when she was a law professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark. She won tenure for a book that I have in front of me, that I have taken out of the long-term storage of the Yale library, which is where books go to die, and it is called “Civil Procedure in Sweden.” It is vast, it is learned, and it is far from the center of the legal issues that affect the U.S. and were affecting it in the 1960s and ’70s …
[Soon after winning tenure,] Justice Ginsburg helped develop what would become the driving legal argument of the 1970s. She worked to bring strict scrutiny to gender discrimination before it was considered legal discrimination. The same scrutiny that was accorded to, say, race. So, an ad for a job that said “men only need apply” should be subjected to strict scrutiny just like one that said “whites only.”
Q: What’s it like to write such a long book about legal history as a non-lawyer?
A: To write such a long book on a complex subject such as the law, I think teaches any journalist tremendous respect for the fullest possible strategies for checking all facts in detail with all sources. That fundamental fact-checking process, which I think is at the core of great journalism, makes possible immersion in a complex subject and narration of a complex subject.
Also, in my upper-level nonfiction writing course at Yale, I make an argument in the structural component which I utterly believe and which is totally upheld by this book … Once you begin to see projects in structural terms, rarely in your life are you actually writing something that amounts to more than a three- or five- or eight-page segment, each of which must push forward a narrative. So large projects may take a considerable amount of time, but they begin to be utterly comprehensible in terms of your thinking.
Q: The work for “Equal” began, as best as I can tell, nearly two decades ago. How does that shape this project?
A: The article for The New York Times Magazine was fundamentally the genesis for this book. It was called “Defining Law on the Feminist Frontier,” yet it was fundamentally a profile of one leading theorist, Catharine MacKinnon. After the article appeared, it received a tiny certificate of merit from the American Bar Association and a bit of commentary from other attorneys, saying in effect that defining law on the American frontier was fundamentally not the work of one person, but really it was the work of many.
So, from there, taking the challenge to look at women reshaping the law, I began thinking what the major case would be. And there was no major case. There was no single case. So I began looking for what amounted to a larger flow. If I’d found a single case as in Brown v. Board of Education, a smaller work would’ve sufficed. There is a sense in which this book could be thought of as five books, each of which could have been a book in its own right. But it wouldn’t have been this narrative of the flow toward equality under the law.