Jocelyn Frye, keynote speaker for UB’s 10th Annual Feminist Legal Theory conference, began with a statement: “Fiction drives policies.”
The stories — the fictions — that policymakers tell themselves about women bear little relation to the actual experiences of women, especially if they are women of color, Frye told the audience in the moot courtroom on Friday.
What is not fictional is the harmful impact of ill-informed policies on women, said Frye, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant to President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House.
Frye took as an example last month’s move by Republican lawmakers to strip Medicaid benefits from new mothers if they did not find a job within 60 days of giving birth.
“I doubt [the GOP lawmakers] would dare to dictate to a spouse” about when she should go back to work, Frye said, adding that the Republican legislators clearly viewed women on Medicaid as “not deserving of the same autonomy” as their own wives. (She noted that lawmakers and their spouses enjoy health coverage paid for by U.S. taxpayers.)
Frye discussed the 19th-century division of labor, in which men took care of work while women tended to home and family. White women, that is. Black women worked outside their own homes, caring for white households.
Said Frye: “Women of color were expected to work to help sustain the societal infrastructure.”
That presumption persists, Frye said, as “different expectations” of women based on their race still inform policy discussions.
Women must be empowered to tell their own stories “so that policy solutions are responsive to the diverse experiences of women,” she said, emphasizing that policies designed to help women should be recognized as essential measures, not “special perks to be doled out.”
A confessed “policy wonk,” Frye urged the professors and students in the audience to make sure their research helped people “on the ground” and was widely shared.
“You are sitting on information that is crucial,” she said. “We need [your work] now because this is a critical time.”
She continued: “Take what you do here and translate it into stories because stories can actually change our direction. … People find it hard to look at real people and tell them their issues don’t matter.”
The conference, sponsored by UB’s Center on Applied Feminism, was titled “Applied Feminism and Intersectionality: Examining the Law Through Multiple Identities.”
The theory of intersectionality posits that the overlap of social identities such as race, gender, sexual identification and class contributes to the specific type of oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual.