The long view, how difficult it is to take it and still be optimistic, and what I’m doing about that

Circumpolar_AZ81.jpgPhotocredit: LCGS Russ – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

There’s something profoundly depressing in reading and writing about equality and diversity in law and legal education. The more recent things I’ve been reading, about how the legal profession, and legal education, are riddled with inequalities based on sex, race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, nationality, (dis)ability, sexuality, gender … repeat messages from things I was reading in the 1990s and 2000s, which in turn repeat messages from things I was reading in the 1980s, and I’m sure they go back and back and back, if I only had time to look.

In this regard, of course, the legal profession and legal education are no different to other areas of life and the world. People in powerful groups make life harder for people in less powerful groups. Sometimes they do so deliberately; I like to be optimistic and charitable about motives and believe that probably more often they do so unwittingly.

If we care at all about these phenomena – and I do – we want to make sure that anyone whom we in a position to educate learns about them. In my case, I want my  UG students to understand that, for instance, while more than 60% of the UG cohort in Sheffield Law School are women, there have only ever been six women on the Supreme Court of India; four on the US Supreme Court; four on the Constitutional Court of South Africa; (I believe) three on the Federal Court of Malaysia; just one on the UK Supreme Court. I want my daughters to understand that not one single woman has ever been a Roman Catholic priest, and also that that official church position is not what many Roman Catholics believe to be right. I want anyone who is prepared to listen to understand that (statistically speaking) police officers in many countries treat the liberty and the very lives of black people as worth less than the lives and liberty of white people. And so on.

With this desire to educate about how bad it all is, there is a danger that the curriculum, that our conversation, becomes all about numbers and statistics. This kind of data shows, in ways that are incontrovertible, or at least relatively difficult to challenge, how bad it all is. The numbers ‘speak for themselves’. They say how unequal life is, the law is, and for how long this has been so. I don’t doubt that there is a certain power in having that voice heard.

But it also plays into a kind of narrative of despair.

If we’re going to educate in a more hopeful way, then we need a different approach. (Or at least an additional approach.) And that’s why the students on the Equality and Diversity project are recommending learning using insights from positionality.

At this point in writing the blog, I had a happy two hours trying to track down the precise meaning of this word, and when it was first used in the way that my students and the literature they have been reading use it. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that in this sense, the first use is in the 1980s in feminist literature. I think it may be Linda Martín Alcoff’s “Cultural Feminism v. Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory” SIGNS Spring 1988, 405-436, or it may be Julia Kristeva.

The idea of positionality stands in opposition to essentialism. It takes seriously the position, the lived experience of those in whom we are interested – in this case people who are disadvantaged in the legal profession and legal education. It’s related to intersectionality, in that it allows for multiple identities, rather than pigeonholing individuals into just one box (black, female, disabled, etc).

And because positionality focuses on lived experience, it pays great attention to people’s stories. I’ve been interested in narrative, and how it works with legal texts and law in general, for a while now. But I haven’t yet thought seriously about how it works in terms of education. (Well, that’s not true – I haven’t thought seriously in a work context about that. I’ve thought a great deal about it in a family context. My children know (now) that, for instance, fairy tales embody truths, even if they are not true in a literal sense (yes, girls, there are wolves in the woods). They understand that the Old Testament bible stories we read every Advent embody truths about what Christians believe to be the nature of God. And so on.)


So, to construct a narrative of hope, in encouraging learning in Sheffield Law School about equality and diversity, we will be telling stories. We could start with Belva Ann Lockwood, one of the first women lawyers in the US. But to bring it home, we’ll tell about the first woman to graduate from Sheffield Law School in 1927. Her name was Alice Josephine Duke. We think she went on to work in the League of Nations in Geneva. There are more stories of women in the law in the UK here.

For Belva Ann, for Alice Josephine, law school may have been a pretty lonely place. To see that it need not always be the way it is now, we need to take the long view.