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Can women plus law save us?

Dahlia Lithwick profiles some female lawyers in the trenches

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On June 24, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that affirmed a national right to abortion until fetal viability. Although the news had been expected since the leak of a draft opinion two months earlier, it still registered as a cataclysmic event — a rollback in previously granted rights with broad and frightening implications for women’s equality and for other formerly protected civil rights (contraception and same-sex marriage, among others). Dobbs stood as a rebuke to decades of litigation and organizing around women and the law.

In Dahlia Lithwick’s urgent, engaging “Lady Justice,” Dobbs serves as a devastating bookend to a story that begins in hope. Lithwick, a legal journalist for Slate and several other publications, begins her book in the months before Donald Trump was elected president. The Supreme Court had ruled in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that Texas couldn’t place severe restrictions on healthcare providers that would put an undue burden on women seeking abortions: she calls it “the last truly great day for women and the legal system in America.” The decision came just six years before Dobbs, but it feels like a lifetime ago in terms of political and legal history.


“Lady Justice” tells the story of the past six years by profiling the female lawyers at the center of some of the period’s most heated political flashpoints. From Sally Yates, the no-drama staunch institutionalist who refused to enforce or defend Trump’s travel ban just a week after his inauguration, to the lawyers who flooded the airports to help Muslim travelers stranded by the ban, Lithwick introduces readers to women on the legal front lines during an era when, she writes, “constitutional history began to unravel quickly.”

It’s no coincidence that women were among the most fervent resistors to the new president’s policies. After all, he had campaigned amid chants of “lock her up!” — referring to Hillary Clinton but, Lithwick argues, easily repurposed as a broader “promise to weaponize the machinery of law to silence, threaten, and isolate women” Trump had won the vote even after bragging about sexual misconduct. It’s not surprising, then, that his election mobilized “armies of female lawyers and advocates — seemingly born for this precise moment.”


After the travel ban came the white supremacist marches that culminated in a deadly weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia; lawsuits over abortion access for pregnant migrant teens in government custody; allegations of sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominees; and the ongoing effort, led by women like Stacey Abrams, to defend voting rights against widespread legal machinations to suppress them. The curse of living in so-called interesting times hasn’t lifted: now we face the ongoing influence of a federal judiciary on which Trump’s appointments have left an indelible mark — and the looming question of whether he will run again for the presidency.

This is not, however, another book about Donald Trump. As Lithwick makes clear, women have long had to fight against legal challenges to our equality. The project of “Lady Justice” is to learn about — and learn from — some of the women battling for equality and access to democracy more generally. Some battles, like those over abortion rights, have been with us for decades and show no signs of ending.


Others no doubt came as a shock to many; before Charlottesville, there were Americans (mostly white) who didn’t realize the active danger represented by the so-called alt-right and its advocates, who framed their demonstrations as a matter of free speech. Lithwick, who had lived in Charlottesville for years before the May 2017 rally, writes about how her own ideas evolved in proximity to the growing threats of violence and the understanding that, as she writes, “the problem with nihilists is that the guardrails of the legal system do not contain them.” She paraphrases her conversation with her young son about the problem posed by the “Unite the Right” rally set to take place in their hometown: “if we engaged with the Nazis, we would lose, and if we ignored them, we would also lose” — a conundrum that she points out may be “the defining question of our lifetime.”

Is there something specific about women that equips us particularly well for the kind of legal work that addresses these questions? As with any group that has been placed into second-class citizenship by the law, women are likely more alert than most men when it comes to sensing the dangers of inequality — “we see things, we hear things” — although it’s also true that for centuries, most white women have chosen the advantages of race over the disadvantage of sex, whenever possible. I worry that Lithwick’s argument that “women plus law equals magic” oversimplifies a complex reality. Justice Amy Coney Barrett is a woman, after all. And she’ll likely be on the Court for another 30 years.


To be sure, “Lady Justice” highlights the work of many women of color, from Anita Hill to Vanita Gupta to Stacey Abrams to Pauli Murray, the protean lawyer-priest-poet whose work influenced thinkers from Eleanor Roosevelt to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Freedom is a dream,” writes Murray (quoted in the book’s epigraph); as she well knew, getting there has always required more than magic.

LADY JUSTICE: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America

By Dahlia Lithwick

Penguin Press, 368 pages, $29

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.