Strebeigh births a book

Barack Obama is our president and Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 is his secretary of state. That’s how things are now. But think back to just over a year ago, to the presidential primaries. Obama and Clinton were running a close and contentious race for the Democratic nomination. With a woman and an African-American man emerging as the two frontrunners, it was promising to be a historic presidential election. It seemed as if our country was finally losing its time-honored prejudices. But the amount of negativity and outright sexism in the media undermined our optimism.

It is this kind of latent discrimination toward women that Fred Strebeigh addresses in his new book, “Equal: Women Reshape American Law.” The book is a case-by-case history of women’s presence in the legal system from 1970 to 2000, when the scales finally began to tip towards equality. Strebeigh covers sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination and constitutional discrimination, among other issues, and he turns a microscope on the breakthrough careers of such female lawyers as Catharine MacKinnon and current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Strebeigh, the well-known professor of nonfiction writing at Yale, began research on this topic nearly two decades ago for an article in the New York Times Magazine on MacKinnon. In other words, the idea for “Equal” was born around the same time as many current Yalies. And with the amount of work and compassion obviously put into the 448-page end result, “Equal” may as well be Strebeigh’s baby.

He writes at length about the admittance of women to law schools, a statistic that has seen dramatic change over just a few decades. Women, writes Strebeigh, made the fastest advance in the history of America’s elite professions. He continually returns to his muse of sorts, Justice Ginsberg. She was top of her class at Harvard and Columbia, one of only two female law school professors at Rutgers, the first to teach a class on women and the law, the first tenured law professor at Columbia and is now the only woman sitting on the Supreme Court. She is, as Strebeigh quotes one of her classmates as saying, “scary smart.”

Strebeigh is a remarkable storyteller. What could have easily become a dry, rigid retelling of American law history is instead a series of vivid and insightful anecdotes about real and utterly relatable characters. Strebeigh describes the people and cases in a personal way: It reads not like a series of history lessons but a collection of family stories passed down for generations. His prose is clear and practiced, his words moving and apt.

As is maybe inevitable, the chapters do at times become a bit dense for a reader unfamiliar with legal precepts and jargon. Passages become tangential, as Strebeigh winds through his miles of research with committed intensity. But these sojourns are brief, and Strebeigh’s passion for the subject shines through.

The book is in some sense uplifting, chronicling the stories of talented individuals overcoming adversity, prejudice and double standards within the system. And yet, in a broader sense, “Equal” is a sobering work. It uncovers for the common reader harsh and unknown truths about American legal history, a history that happened too recently to be considered a cultural artifact. In his “Postscript,” Strebeigh cites the frightening ratio of one woman to eight men in the Supreme Court. It’s a ratio that hasn’t been seen in a law school class since 1971.

“Equal” reminds us that we cannot move forward in such matters without knowing what came before. Strebeigh has given us the means to do just that: His book is a record of, and homage to, those women to whom we are all as Americans indebted.

Comments