Defining the Meanings of Motherhood a Lot Harder Than It Sounds

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Columbia Law School Seminar Taught by Professor Carol Sanger Takes Historical and Legal Look at How Societal Views of Being a Mother Have Developed

Columbia Law School Professor Carol Sanger, who teaches a course on the meanings of motherhood

This seminar studies the complications of women’s lives and how much the law has been involved with their status as mothers.

Motherhood can be one of the most rewarding roles for a woman, but it can also be one of the hardest, due in part to many obstacles and hurdles imposed by the legal system.

How courts and politicians have historically treated motherhood will be the subject of an unconventional seminar at Columbia Law School co-taught by Carol Sanger, the Barbara Aronstein Black Professor of Law.

Enrollment for the class, Meanings of Motherhood, is divided evenly between upperclass law students and graduate history students who will examine an issue riddled with both complexity and ever-changing assumptions. Topics include work, citizenship, sexuality, poverty, reproductive technologies, and the fetus itself.

“This seminar studies the complications of women’s lives and how much the law has been involved with their status as mothers,” Sanger said.

The class starts with a reading of the book "Anne Orthwood’s Bastard," about an indentured servant in early Virginia, whose death after giving birth out of wedlock sparked four lawsuits over who was the father, who “owned” the surviving child, and the role of midwives not only in assisting with labor but in providing testimony in paternity cases. “It’s a fascinating study of how this one instance of unwed motherhood had legal consequences throughout the community,” Sanger said.

The course then looks at how ideas about motherhood shifted as the nation took root, and uses case law and historical readings to discuss the evolution of such issues as the link between motherhood and citizenship, custody, adoption, employment discrimination, and lesbian couples who raise a child together.

“There was a principle in law that a child could only have one mother,” Sanger said. “That worked well for a while, but now a lot of kids have two mothers. The cultural part is in place, and now the law is trying to figure out what to do about these new forms of maternal relationships.”

Sanger will teach with Alice Kessler Harris, the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose expertise includes women’s employment and gender history. The pair last taught this class three years ago, and Sanger said it was fascinating to see how students from each field approached the texts of the other discipline.

“I have to show (the history students) that in law you read every sentence, every word. You have to go slowly and that it all matters,” Sanger said. “Alice shows the law students that in history you read for the sweep, and that every adjective doesn’t matter. You actually can read a book a week.”

Students are required to write a paper based on a legal case about a real mother who became entangled with law and then analyze why the case arose at that particular moment in time, Sanger said.

Sanger cautions the students, all female, that the class is “not therapy,” even if the subject matter focuses solely on how women have been affected by the law.

“We really just focus on the materials,” Sanger said. “But all the students are incredibly avid about it, because here’s an issue they are also concerned about at a personal level because they’re in their late 20s and early 30s and they hear certain clocks ticking.”

Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, stands at the forefront of legal education and of the law in a global society. Columbia Law School joins its traditional strengths in international and comparative law, constitutional law, administrative law, business law and human rights law with pioneering work in the areas of intellectual property, digital technology, sexuality and gender, criminal, national security, and environmental law.

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