This Guide is designed to give you a brief overview of the legal field in Women’s Rights Law. It provides practical information regarding the types of employers and practice settings in which you can pursue a career; the personality traits that employers seek; the practical skills that you can gain during law school; and resources to further research this rewarding field.
This content is courtesy of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising at the Harvard Law School. It was written by Diane Rosenfeld, LLM ’96 Lecturer on Law, and Summer Fellows Toni Mardirossian, Dana Langston, and Amy Lawler. It was later revised by Claire Dunning, Summer Fellow.
What is Women’s Rights Law?
The term “women’s rights” encompasses many different areas, making it among the most difficult areas of law to define. Women’s rights are most often associated with reproductive rights, sexual and domestic violence, and employment discrimination. But women’s rights also includes immigration and refugee matters, child custody, criminal justice, health care, housing, social security and public benefits, civil rights, human rights, sports law, LGBT rights, and international law.
This guide will mainly focus on the traditional “women’s rights” areas, and discuss the variety of opportunities, issue areas, and practice settings to advocate for women’s rights. However, there are an infinite number of women’s issues to fight for, and an equally large number of avenues in which to advocate for equal justice. Be creative in your thinking, spread wide your research, and find the issue and practice area in which you can most effectively achieve your goals.
Although not intended in the formulation of laws, some criminal laws are applied to men and women differently. While there are other examples of ways criminal laws are applied in different ways to men and women, the prosecution of women for drug-related offenses can have unintended consequences for women. With the mandatory sentencing practices enacted during the war on drugs, women are increasingly being incarcerated for, what is often, very limited involvement in drug trafficking.
Domestic violence against women permeates every aspect of life for victims of abuse in the home. It includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by a partner. Domestic violence is a complicated problem and once a victim finds the strength to leave her abuser, she encounters a variety of problems requiring legal support. There are a number of legal hurdles women have to jump through after leaving their attacker. In addition to direct representation of women in obtaining restraining orders, legal advocates can work to prevent discriminatory rental practices, ensure adequate funding for shelters, and other reforms at both the local and national level.
Whether through pay discrimination, or a “glass-ceiling” effect of promoting only men, women are still treated differently than men in all types of workplace settings. Employment discrimination can be litigated through individual or class-action cases to guarantee greater opportunities and equality for women. Many private-public interest firms focus on employment discrimination and have opportunities to litigate on behalf of women. Work at the federal level at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is another avenue through which to end discriminatory practices against women in the workplace.
Family law encompasses, among other practices, child custody, child support, protection from abuse orders, and divorce–all of which involve women. Women involved in family law proceedings need counsel in obtaining legal protection from abuse for themselves and their children. In custody, support, and protection proceedings, low-income women in family court typically rely upon legal support from local legal services offices to represent them. Legal services lawyers can make improve daily lives of individuals through family law practice supporting women. Reform through policy and impact litigation can protect the rights of mothers and women on a larger scale.
Human Trafficking and Sex Workers
Human trafficking continues to victimize young women and girls internationally. Low levels of education, economic instability, and limited English competency often make women vulnerable to predatory traffickers, who coerce their victims with false promises for employment. Legal advocates work to call attention to these injustices from governments around the world, demand punishment of those involved in trafficking, and return women and girls to their homes.
Incarcerated women encounter problems because they may need gender-specific attention. Women sometimes enter prison while pregnant or become pregnant in prison, and require prenatal care while incarcerated. More often than is the case with male prisoners, incarcerated mothers are often single-parents and questions about parenting rights and the possible termination of such rights arise when mothers and children are separated by incarceration. Lawyers can work on policy related to health care for incarcerated women, care for girls in juvenile facilities, and parental rights of incarcerated mothers.
Immigration and Refugee
A high number of immigrants and refugees are women and immigrant women can be at a heightened risk of being held in abusive relationships, as abusers can threaten deportation if a victim seeks assistance. Lawyers can represent women in filing petitions for permanent residence separate from their abusers. Some women petition the government as refugees on the basis of gender persecution and need legal counsel in these proceedings.
International Women’s Rights
Organizations both in the United States and abroad are increasingly calling for vigilance in respecting and advocating for the rights of women abroad. In some war-torn countries, women are victims of abuse, with few, if any, consequences from law enforcement. Often there are stigmas attached to victims of sexual and domestic violence, discouraging victims from reporting crimes of this nature. Legal advocates in the United States can fight for increased awareness of violence against women as violations of human rights.
Reproductive rights is a controversial, often emotionally and politically charged, issue area, one which is on the forefront of agendas for women’s rights activists in the United States. They govern the rights of individuals and matters of reproductive health. This may include, but is not limited to an individual’s right to terminate a pregnancy, act as a surrogate, use contraception, and gain access to reproductive health services. Due to the moral, ethical, and religious undertones of birth control, abortion, and family planning, this area of law continues to evolve contentiously. Lawyers advocate for the refinement and protection of their clients reproductive rights.
Sexual assault poses a great threat to women. Victims of such crimes are in need of attorney advocates to protect their individual rights as women and to support policy on behalf of victims across the nation. State’s Attorneys and District Attorneys prosecute sexual assailants and are involved in cases regarding sexual assault on an individual level. Some women’s rights activists are currently working to standardize the information provided to victims about their rights.
Title IX calls for equality on the basis of gender for any funding or programming related to education. While Title IX demands equality on the basis of gender in athletics, academic programs, and facilities, unequal practices continue to exist at many levels of education. There are many gains to be made in ensuring equal access to academic and athletic programs for girls and women in educational settings. Through impact litigation and policy, women’s rights lawyers can demand compliance with Title IX in all educational settings.
Where can I practice Women’s Rights Law?
As with most issues areas in public interest law, there are a variety of practice settings to further women’s rights. Be sure to keep an open mind and think carefully about what sort of practice setting appeals to you.
Government work offers many opportunities to positively impact women’s lives, both individually through the prosecution of cases and more collectively through policy work. You can make a difference working in an office at the local, state or federal level of government–or you can decide to run for office yourself.
The federal government offers a wide range of positions that formulate national policy on women’s issues. These include, but are not limited to, work at the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, Department of Labor, and the State Department, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). At the state level, many have established Governor’s Commissions or Task Forces on Women’s Issues, most dealing with domestic violence. Even if you do not want to directly work at your state’s commission on women’s rights, remember these offices as resources with links to other organizations about women in your state. In addition, Attorney General’s Offices can offer interesting work on women’s rights issues as some have established divisions focused on policy work on economic and violence issues affecting women as well as other areas impacting women’s rights, such as abortion rights, consumer advocacy, and poverty law. At the local level of government, opportunities exist to work on women’s rights through mayoral offices and prosecutor’s offices. Some mayors make fighting violence against women a priority, and have dedicated offices to combat domestic violence. State’s Attorneys and District Attorneys prosecute sex crimes, bringing justice on behalf of victims of sexual assault.
Nonprofit Advocacy Work
Nonprofit advocacy organizations engage in policy advocacy and/or impact litigation focused on women’s rights. Policy advocacy work will often entail coalition building and close connections to governmental organizations that may carry out the agenda of your organizations to influence policy. With high-impact litigation and class action cases, organizations that handle such cases, are quite careful in the cases they agree to litigate, considering the broader ramifications of the desired outcome. Besides taking high impact cases, nonprofits often contribute to other cases, through submission of amicus briefs. There are endless ways and paths through nonprofit organizations to advance women’s rights. Think carefully about office environment, location, and level of advocacy (local, state, national, international) when selecting a nonprofit office to work for.
Legal services programs provide direct civil representation, at reduced cost or free, to low income and elderly clients. Legal services attorneys ensure equal access to the justice system for people who could not otherwise afford attorneys. The majority of legal services clients are women, and a substantial percentage of cases involve domestic violence. Much of a legal services lawyer’s work involves individual client contact, and lawyers are often faced with situations where a client’s fundamental rights or needs are in jeopardy. Typical cases include representing single mothers in eviction cases, advocating to protect women from abusive partners, fighting for public benefits, or arguing for a worker denied employment benefits. There are some client-oriented nonprofits that are organized by subject matter, and staff lawyers specialize in one area of practice. In other offices, though, lawyers handle a variety of cases on a wide spectrum of issues. With either type of structure, a legal services office could potentially give a lawyer frequent opportunities to work on behalf of female clients.
Private-Public Interest Firms
Like traditional nonprofit public interest organizations, public interest law firms usually have a particular social, political, or economic vision that include helping underrepresented groups and/or promoting change. Public interest firms, like traditional nonprofits, bring cases that will advance their vision. A public interest law firm may, for example, represent female employees charging their employers with unlawful discrimination. But unlike traditional nonprofits, public interest firms operate as for-profit businesses. Public interest firms rely on the fees generated by their cases, rather than foundation grants or tax dollars. Thus, a public interest firm looks not only at the merits, but also at the potential profitability of a case, in deciding whether to take it on.
What can I be doing in law school to help my career in Women’s Rights Law?
When searching for a job in women’s rights, always highlight your well-developed lawyering skills, and your commitment to women’s rights advocacy. Be sure to use your time in law school to discover your specific interests in this practice area, demonstrate your commitment, and develop your legal advocacy skills. Take advantage of student groups, presentations/programming, and law school courses that focus on women’s rights to build your subject matter proficiency. Additionally, be sure to find a legal internship in a women’s rights that will help you gain the necessary experience for future employment. The opportunity to read, write, and analyze with an understanding for gender will prepare you to enter the field of women’s rights after graduation. Even internships that do not specifically address law-related concerns can be useful because interns are exposed to significant public policy issues such as abortion, domestic violence and women’s health issues. Any good internship will also provide you with the chance to improve your writing, litigation, and client-based skills.
Since the world of women’s rights advocacy is not very large, and making contacts with people already in the field is going to pay off down the road when you’re looking for advice, internships and careers. Leaders in the field of women’s rights stress the importance of making connections with advocates in the field. Connections fostered while at your law school could lead to future opportunities. Don’t be afraid to ask for someone’s contact information so you can follow up after your initial introduction or reach out to an individual or organization cold. Consider joining a women’s bar association as a start to extending your network locally and nationally.
The following links will be useful as you continue to explore this field:
- Harvard Law School Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising’s Women’s Rights Guide: http://hls.harvard.edu/content/uploads/2008/07/guide-women.pdf?redir=1
- American Bar Association, Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice’s Committee on the Rights of Women: http://apps.americanbar.org/dch/committee.cfm?com=IR519000
- Global Justice Center: http://globaljusticecenter.net/
- Planned Parenthood: https://www.plannedparenthood.org/
- National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL): http://naral.org/
- National Organization For Women (NOW): http://now.org/
- National Women’s Law Center: http://nwlc.org/
- Victim Rights Law Center: http://www.victimrights.org/about-vrlc
- Women’s Law Project: http://www.womenslawproject.org/about/
Keep in mind that a number of women’s rights organizations have local chapters across the country. The National Organization For Women (NOW), Planned Parenthood, and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) all have an extensive network of local chapters in most states. Additionally, most states also have an established Commission on the Status of Women to look into women’s rights in each state so be sure to search in your area.
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