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Gender and Inequality: Old Answers, New Questions

1840th Stated Meeting - Cambridge
Linda Kerber (University of Iowa) and Robert Post (Law School, University of California, Berkeley)
December 6, 2000
Linda Kerber

"Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of Husbands," Abigail Adams pleaded in 1776. The wife of founding father—and Academy cofounder—John Adams warned that "all Men would be tyrants if they could." However, according to award-winning historian Linda Kerber, the founding fathers chose instead to retain the old laws governing domestic relations, thereby codifying gender inequality and helping to shape male-female relations for the next two hundred years. Only in the past generation have feminist-influenced modifications to the legal system helped spur radical changes in gender relations.

In her talk at the Academy's 1840th Stated Meeting Professor Kerber argued that American law will continue to play a central role in male-female relations in the future, on such issues as domestic violence, childcare and the structure of work, the feminization of poverty, and international human rights.

The University of Iowa historian drew on her pathbreaking research in constitutional and legal history to show that choices we make in American law strongly influence gender relations. In her talk she took a fresh look at some old questions about gender inequality: What's fair? What counts as equal treatment of men and women? Answers to these questions have changed radically within a single generation. A half-century ago, none of the following were considered unfair: excusing all or virtually all women from jury service; excluding women from many forms of work, education, and training; assigning only to men the authority to exercise violence in the name of the state.

Professor Kerber is a past president of the Organization of American Historians and of the American Studies Association. Her address was part of a series of Stated Meetings looking at inequality in America today. Read the transcript in the Bulletin.

For more information please call (617) 576-5047.

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