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Deborah Dinner, Law, Emory University School of Law

  • When: March 17, 2021, 12–1:30 pm
  • Where: Zoom: To register, contact Sophie Kofman at

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Motherhood, Women’s Labor, and the Origins of Neoliberal Regulation, 1964-1978

In the last decades of the twentieth century, feminists and social conservatives, legislators and judges, union leaders and employers all debated how the state should regulate the intersection of motherhood and women’s work. The Sex Equality Dilemma: Work, Family, and Legal Change in Neoliberal America (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press) analyzes these conflicts, examining how the definition of sex equality evolved from the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to that of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and beyond. I argue that feminists made greater strides advancing antidiscrimination law than they did their goals for a more robust welfare state. This asymmetry enabled a neoliberal ordering of work and family life. My talk at the American Bar Foundation will illustrate the book’s argument by focusing on two episodes: the erosion of maternalist state labor standards, in the late 1960s, and the varied advocacy and policy responses to the problem of “displaced homemakers,” in the mid-1970s. I will also explore the implications of this history for labor conditions, economic insecurity, and gender inequality, today. 

Photo and bio courtesy of Emory University School of Law.

Deborah Dinner is a legal historian whose scholarship examines the interaction between social movements, political culture, and legal change. Her research focuses on questions of gender and class equity in the legal regulation of the workplace and labor markets, family relationships, the hybrid public-private welfare regime, and insurance law. Her courses and curricular interests include Property, Employment Discrimination, Legal History, the Fourteenth Amendment, and Family Law.

Dinner’s forthcoming book, The Sex Equality Dilemma: Work, Family, and Legal Change in Neoliberal America (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press) examines legal and political debates about the meaning of sex equality in the late twentieth century. The book argues that the dynamics of market and social conservatism yielded an asymmetry in the institutionalization of feminist goals. Feminists made dramatic strides toward eliminating gender stereotypes under law, while opposition in courts, state and federal legislatures, and administrative agencies largely blocked their attempts to expand social insurance and social welfare entitlements. 

Dinner’s most recent article “Beyond ‘Best Practices’: Employment Discrimination in the Neoliberal Era,” published in the Indiana Law Journal, shows that the rise of antidiscrimination ideals in the late twentieth century was intertwined with the deregulation of labor and with cutbacks in the welfare state.  Her article “The Divorce Bargain: The Fathers’ Rights Movement and Family Inequalities,” Virginia Law Review (2016) (selected presentation at the 2014 Harvard/Stanford/Yale Junior Faculty Forum) offers the first legal history of the fathers’ rights movement and analyzes its consequences for class-differentiated experiences of fatherhood. Dinner has published additional articles in the Washington University Law Review, Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, and Law & History Review. Dinner is currently developing a new project, which analyzes the rise of the actuarial sciences as a source of legal authority and of private insurance as a mechanism by which law shapes Americans’ disparate experiences of everyday life: the family, neighborhood, body, and home.

Dinner joined Emory in 2015, after serving as an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. Dinner earned her JD and PhD in history at Yale. Following law school, she clerked for Judge Karen Nelson Moore of the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and served as the Raoul Berger–Mark DeWolfe Howe Legal History Fellow at Harvard University and the Samuel I. Golieb Fellow in Legal History at New York University School of Law.

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