In Defense of Vulnerability – SJD Student Fabrizia Serafim Defends Her Thesis

by Fabrizia Serafim

In my SJD dissertation, I used a vulnerability approach to think of alternative solutions to current legal problems in Brazil. In a nutshell, a vulnerability approach is one based on vulnerability theory, a critical legal theory that starts from the ontological body, that is, the physical experience of embodiment we all share, and from the dependencies this embodiment creates on others and on the institutions human societies create collectively to have resilience, that is, to produce and to have access to the different resources we need to survive and to thrive and to bounce back if we fall. After articulating this description of the human condition, the theory goes on to interrogate social institutions with a normative bent: are social institutions providing resilience; are they responding to our shared vulnerability in fair ways or are they privileging some to the detriment of many?

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Police Brutality, Humiliation, and Resilience Allocation

by Hila Keren

A year passed since the brutal murder of George Floyd. As I wrote for the LA Times earlier this week, no effective lessons and no adequate response can arise without understanding the role of humiliation in acts of police violence against Blacks and other people of color. Here, on this blog, I would like to draw on the vulnerability theory to place a demand on the state to proactively ensure that its police force cannot use its powers to humiliate anyone.

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Equality: Still Illusive After All These Years – The Family and Equality

by Martha LA Fineman

Image via Pixabay

In my chapter for this collection, I was asked to revisit my critique of equality as the appropriate measure or objective for family law reform as it was set forth in The Illusion of Equality: The Rhetoric and Reality of Divorce Reform, a book published over fifteen years ago. In that book as well as in articles developed in the 1980s, I argued that equality and gender neutrality were not appropriate concepts to employ in thinking about reform of the family and family law. The gist of my argument then was that the family, as our most gendered institution, was not susceptible to the imposition of a regime of equality, at least not as it was understood in American law. This argument was built on the observation that the nature of the equality reforms urged in the family mimicked the equality reforms sought in the political and public arenas. Outside of the family, legal feminists seemed wedded then (as now) to a liberal regime of equality, which mandated sameness of treatment. I suggested that what we needed in the family was not formal or rule equality, but some notion of substantive or result equality that considered past circumstances and future obligations. The imposition of a mere formal equality regime would only further and deepen existing inequalities.

I identified three sites of entrenched inequality affecting most marriages. First was the inequality in wages and employment opportunity that existed in the market. Next was the inequality of power that persisted and was manifested in family negotiations over whose individual interests should be sacrificed for the larger family good. This was a process that systematically disadvantaged women due to their lower earnings and culturally imposed altruism (they were the ones who were supposed to be making sacrifices for others). Finally, there are inequalities post-divorce, with the responsibilities of custody overwhelmingly assigned to women. This continued and compounded the unequal allocation of the disadvantages and burdens associated with care work that often disadvantaged married women in the paid work force. It can be argued that those inequalities I wrote about a generation ago have lessened in our post-egalitarian family law world, but it is also true that they continue to persist in many marriages, even if to a somewhat lesser degree. While gender-neutral, equality-based reforms are firmly in place in the statute books and have proved successful on a rhetorical level, structural family disadvantages associated with caretaking still typically burden women more than men, even after decades of feminist equality reform.

My hope in 1991 was that we might fashion a more substantive or result-sensitive version of equality in the family context. The law would allow unequal or different treatment of divorcing spouses, such as unequal distribution of family assets and obligations in order to address the existing inequalities created or exacerbated by past and future family responsibilities. This more result version of equality – substantive equality – would be considered just and appropriate in that it would satisfy the need that arose because one spouse typically assumed primary responsibility for children both within and after marriage.

While I still believe in the justness of the substantive equality outcome, my vocabulary and arguments have changed to become less focused on gender and more inclusive of those whose family or other uncounted labour is not valued in a formal equality regime. I now talk about need in terms of dependency and vulnerability. This articulation may not be any more palatable to those who buy into the rhetoric of independence and self-sufficiency, but it is more theoretically promising. Vulnerability is universal and constant. As embodied individuals, we are all just an accidental mishap, natural disaster, institutional failure, or serious illness away from descending into a state of dependency. Furthermore, dependencies are multiple and complex in form.

There are two types of dependency with which I have been concerned. On one hand, dependency is inevitable – a part of the human condition and developmental in nature. On the other hand, those who care for inevitable or natural dependents through essential caretaking work are themselves dependent on resources in order to undertake that care. Those resources must be supplied by society through its institutions. In our American scheme of social responsibility, both dependencies are relegated to the family and, typically within that family, to women in their roles as mothers, wives, daughters, and so on.

When I look at the family through the lens of vulnerability and dependency, I find it enhances and expands beyond that institution the critique of the imposition of a formal equality regime that I earlier developed with marriage and divorce primarily in mind. My subsequent work in developing a theory of dependency, which led to work on the idea of universal human vulnerability, demonstrated to me that both state and market are of necessity implicated in situating the family within society. That work also convinced me that formal equality is a flawed and poorly articulated objective, even when applied beyond the realm of the family. In fact, some of the very same reasons that formal or rule equality is inappropriate for the family also illuminate why it is inadequate to address justice and allocation problems in the larger society. Formal equality is inevitably uneven equality because existing inequalities abound throughout society, and a concept of equality that is merely formal in nature cannot adequately address them.

Gender was an obvious entry point from which to build this larger analysis in part because women have historically been marked as different in relationship to the state and public sphere. Their citizenship and concurrent responsibilities were anchored in the family, not in the wider polity or free-wielding market. The residues of that distinction remain in many ways that implicate the image of women as citizens. We may have secured political and civil rights, been successful in our search for equality in a formal way, but we continue to stand outside the ebb and flow of mainstream power. Equality for women remains elusive in practical and material terms, in part because they remain mired in a prelegal notion of the family, in which they are understood to have unique reproductive roles and responsibilities that define them as essentially different and necessarily subordinate in a world that values economic success and discounts domestic labour.

Of course, the distinction between the position of women in the family and their position within the larger society is incoherent theoretically. The family is not a separate sphere isolated from the norms and standards applied in the larger society. The notions we have about the mandates of citizenship, the appropriateness of claims to liberty and autonomy, and beliefs about relative equality resonate across societal institutions. This is true on an ideological level as well as on a structural level.

The nature and functioning of other societal institutions profoundly affects the nature and shape of the family. By the same token, the nature and functioning of the family profoundly affects other societal institutions. As I have argued earlier, the metaphor of symbiosis seems more appropriate to describe the family in relationship to the state than does the separate spheres imagery. The family is located within the state and its institutions – they are interactive and define one another. Alterations in the scope or nature of one institution will correspondingly alter the scope or nature of the other. By the same token, if formal equality is inadequate or unattainable in the family, the chances are that is because it has failed or will fail as a regime in the larger society. These are the lessons we need to learn.

A Responsive State – For the People, by the People

by Camilla S. Jydebjerg




The hashtag #notinmyname is widely used on social media as a way to show discontent with current politics as well as to distance oneself from them. In Denmark (where I live) I have recently seen people use it to distance themselves from the government’s politics concerning refugees, especially the decision to consider areas of Syria safe. This decision has led to the suspension of the residence permits of a number of Syrian refugees. These suspensions of residence permits have been perpetuated despite international critique.

I understand the hashtag #notinmyname and I share the need to distance myself from a government that acts in ways that are thoroughly and utterly disconnected from my morals and worldviews. The question I want to broach here is if that is possible. Is it possible to distance oneself from the government or should the hashtag read #thisishappeninginmyname. After all the cornerstone of a representative democracy is that the politicians are the representatives of the people acting on our behalf. Lately, I have been pondering how we can think about government and representative democracy and indeed if the ideals of these institutions still hold through. These thoughts are inspired by my current visiting scholarship at the Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative at Emory University.

As part of this visiting scholarship, I have been fortunate enough to be able to participate in the classes held by Professor Martha Fineman and Postdoctoral Fellow Jennifer Hickey. In these classes the topic of government and trust in government has been debated in different ways often in connection to a seemingly growing political polarization of society and a failing  of trust in government. According to the Pew Research Center only “20% of U.S. adults say they trust the government in Washington to ‘do the right thing’ just about always or most of the time.” OECD numbers show the same trend. Furthermore, 67 percent believe that most politicians are corrupt. These are shocking numbers revealing a state of government considered neither for nor by the people. This is not just an American problem as numbers across national borders point to lack of trust in national governments and a wish for a change in political systems.

Trust in the national government seems to run quite a lot higher in Denmark (76,6 percent of the Danes answer yes to having confidence in National Government in the 2020 OECD numbers). However, as the above-mentioned hashtag shows there are also feelings of discontent and distance between the Danish government and at least some of its people (e.g., me). The Danish Governments handling of COVID-19 has in general been commended as the numbers have been kept down and a third wave seem to be avoided. However, the response has not only been cause for celebration and in particular a decision to kill all mink to inhibit the possibility of transmission of disease from mink “seems to have accelerated the growth of both pro-government and anti-government groups on Facebook, indicating a polarization within the Danish population regarding trust in the government and the political handling of the COVID-19 crisis” (Kristensen 2020).

Even though the philosophy of national government can be criticized for its roots in colonialism, privilege blindness, and institutionalized oppression, it can still be argued that lack of trust in government and political polarization are problematic in many ways e.g., it might lead to falling voter turnout, political apathy and make political problem-solving harder. OECD research shows that trust in government is closely tied to the government’s will and ability to provide public services as well as to anticipate change, protect its citizens and to improve living conditions for all. The idea of government thus seems to be tied to the governments ability to protect us from harm and misfortune. This is very much in line with vulnerability theory’s call for a (more) responsive state. This call rests on the theory’s understanding of the human legal subject as always, and inherently vulnerable. Vulnerability is a constant condition of human life because all living “embodied beings” are “susceptible to change and alteration” (Fineman, 2017, p.4). It is the very nature of human vulnerability that forms the basis for a claim that the state must be actively responsive to human vulnerability and dependency (Fineman 2010 & 2019).

Vulnerability theory asks of us that “we imagine responsive structures whereby state involvement actually empowers a vulnerable subject by addressing existing inequalities of circumstances that result from undue privilege or institutional advantage” (Fineman 2010, p. 40). This is both a refusal of the idea of the restrained state as a societal ideal and a potent reminder that there is no such thing as an inactive or unresponsive state. All the actions of a State are a response to someone. Societal institutions, laws and politics are always responsive and responding to someone (Fineman 2018). The question then becomes to whom they are responding and who should we hold accountable if we feel disfranchised, despondent, and not represented. The numbers quoted above show that we need to start imagining a responsive state, that we need to start discussing what kind of state we want and what kind of governments. How does a responsive state look and how do we hold it accountable? Let us start the discussion so that we can get the government that we deserve to act in our name.

Nature Is Smarter Than We Are: Midwifery and the Responsive State

by Jennifer Hickey

Image via Pixabay

“Many of our problems in US maternity care stem from the fact that we leave no room for recognizing when nature is smarter than we are.”

― Ina May Gaskin, Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta


“The United States  was recently dubbed “the most dangerous place in the developed world to give birth.” Over seven hundred pregnant women or new mothers die in the United States each year. Infants are dying at an alarming rate as well. Our shockingly high and ever-increasing rate of maternal mortality, particularly among Black women, has garnered significant national attention. Further, many women experience mistreatment at the hands of their health care providers, including the imposition of unnecessary or unwanted medical interventions during birth. Aside from causing emotional and physical trauma, such interventions have been directly linked to increased maternal mortality.

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