The Full Humanity of People

In 1972, Ruth Bader Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the
American Civil Liberties Union. Using primarily male plaintiffs as a legal strategy, Ginsburg helped women gain de jure equality under the law, garnering constitutional protections based on gender. Later, Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” developing a more nuanced lens to feminist legal theory by positing that people’s identities are multifaceted and must be taken as a whole. Specifically, she described that a black woman, for example, cannot just be “black” or “woman” separately—the unique overlap of her experience in race and gender creates specific challenges and considerations for her that black men and white women may not face. This can be extrapolated to the concepts of ability, class, sexual orientation, religion, naturalization status, and more.

Seeing the whole of a person and treating them equally under the law is an age-old riddle. How can the law apply with equity to protect the oppressed and disenfranchised, hold wrongdoers accountable, and advance justice? I would posit that this challenge starts with each of us lawyers, whether we work as practitioners, academics, judges, or lawmakers. Our challenge is to see the full humanity of people and factor that into how we bring, judge, or defend their cases. Ginsburg’s strategy was an initial battering ram for gender equity, but as we navigate the 21st century, the landscape requires flexible, holistic understandings of systems and people in order to foster justice and best uphold the Constitution as we have all sworn to do. Intertwined understandings of sociological, legal, and economic forces upon race, gender, and class, are necessary to be competent practitioners, judges, academics, and lawmakers in the new millennium.

In 2020, the word “gender” has taken on nuance and meaning that our society has rarely assigned to it. Ten years ago, most people would tell you that the words “gender” and “sex” were interchangeable, and that gender is binary. In 2020, those assumptions have been challenged. Increasingly, gender is not synonymous with sex, and it is not binary. How the law interacts with gender, therefore, must change.

In January’s issue of the Hennepin Lawyer, I cowrote an article about how legal language and social norms are a co-evolutionary pair, each feeding and further entrenching the other. This manifests in our systems with regards to race, class, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and, of course, gender. In our current issue, you will read about how these schemas and the expectations they place on our perception of gender manifest—and how you can challenge them.

Ellie Krug writes about her experiences as a transgender woman, who transitioned after a long and illustrious legal career. CB Baga and Nicole Hittner each write about how you can be a more thoughtful attorney, with Baga explaining how to cater to non-binary clients and Hittner discussing allyship with women in your workplace. Carolyn Grose writes about how lawyers should use critical theory and justice-centered practice to create normative narratives for our clients. This type of critical thinking allows lawyers to decipher their cases through the lenses of the law, their clients, and the entrenched systems that affect both.

In this issue, you will also find excerpts from a roundtable discussion that our Publications Committee vice chair, Lisa Buck, and I moderated between several past HCBA presidents. These leaders discussed myriad issues, from when they first realized they wanted to be lawyers to the difficulties they faced as young women in the legal field. In having this discussion, it was clear to me that women in the law are blazing trails for everyone, regardless of gender. In discussing work-life balance, for example, several women touted the importance of supportive partners, men taking parental leave to normalize parenting in the workplace, and the positive effect that technology has had on the practice of law.

In this issue, we attempt to provide glances into various ways gender intersects with the law, highlighting female and nonbinary clients and lawyers. This is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. Gender, like race and class, is entrenched in our understanding of society and our roles in it, permeating every aspect of our lives. The aim of the articles in these pages is to provide macro-level insights, practical tips for your practice, and a keener understanding of how who we are affects how we are seen, treated, and impacted by the law.

By Ayah Helmy
Ms. Helmy is an assistant Ramsey County attorney, advising county agencies and litigating on their behalf. Previously, she clerked in Hennepin County District Court, ran a solo practice, and worked for Washington, D.C., local government. Ms. Helmy is also an adjunct professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, teaching Feminist Jurisprudence.
Managing Editor
Nick Hansen

Executive Editor
Joseph Satter

Sheila Johnson