WMU News

Kuersten textbook analyzes law and gender issues

Feb. 24, 2004

KALAMAZOO--An initiative that began as a class designed for students interested in attending law school led a Western Michigan University faculty member to pen one of the nation's first textbooks to address gender issues and the courts.

That's how "Women and the Law: Leaders, Cases, and Documents" came to fruition for Dr. Ashlyn K. Kuersten, WMU assistant professor of political science and author of the new book on American law.

"When I first started teaching at the University, the Supreme Court had recently handed down four monumental cases involving sexual harassment," Kuersten says. "Our department realized students needed to become educated on these issues, so I designed a course. I then saw how few textbooks were available on the topic."

The book highlights monumental cases involving, same-sex marriage, adoption, divorce and child custody. It also addresses such issues as sexual harassment law and how employers are liable for their employees conduct in the workplace.

"Because the book is about gender, male students might tend to think 'oh, that excludes me,' when in actuality, 80 percent of gender discrimination cases involve male litigants," says Kuersten. "Men have also sued successfully to ensure legal drinking ages are the same and that alimony be given to both men and women following a divorce."

In addition to giving attention to key female law figures such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Susan B. Anthony, the book also examines: various key cases surrounding reproductive rights, including Roe vs. Wade; issues involving education such as Title IX legislation; and cases involving female students at the Citadel, and the Virginia Military Institute. There is also a comprehensive appendix of primary source documents.

When Kuersten speaks about the history of women's legal rights, she is amazed at the progress, but is adamant in her view that more needs to be done.

"Because of state coverture laws that existed in some states until the mid-20th century, a woman had no legal identity herself," says Kuersten. "She could not open a bank account, or sign a contract without her husband or father's permission. But now, we have more women than men graduating from law school and our own University has a female president. These are things unheard of even a decade ago."

But issues such as child care, equal pay and workplace rights are still cloudy topics when it comes to equality between the sexes, she maintains.

"We are the only industrialized country without a national child care policy," Kuersten says. "We have no national paid maternity leave policy. Women are much more likely to live below the poverty line with their children, and companies rarely cover birth control or fertility problems."

She sees one piece of legislation that her book explores as having the power to level the playing field. It is the Equal Rights Amendment, an act that has been introduced into Congress every year since 1923, but has yet to pass.

"The amendment is very simple; it says the law can't distinguish on the basis of gender under any circumstances, period," says Kuersten. "But until it is passed, I can't see issues such as pay equity or glass ceiling problems improving."

Kuersten has been a member of the WMU faculty since 1997 and serves as on of the Department of Political Science's pre-law advisors. She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Louisville, and she completed her doctoral and master's degrees at the University of South Carolina. An expert on the US. Courts of Appeals, she is co-author of "Decisions on the U.S. Court of Appeals," and is currently working on establishing a database of U.S. Court of Appeals decisions with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation.

"Women and the Law: Leaders, Cases and Documents," is 256 pages and is published by ABC-CLIO. It is available in hardcover through Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble booksellers for $85.

Media contact: Matt Gerard, 269 387-8400, matthew.gerard@wmich.edu

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