Laura Rosenbury, JD (right), professor of law, talks with law student Elizabeth Chen in Rosenbury’s office in Anheuser-Busch Hall. “Laura is the kind of transforming teacher and scholar whose dynamic and thoughtful work improves everything around her — the learning of her students, the ideas of her colleagues and the quality of her school,” says Kent Syverud, JD, law dean and the Ethan A.H. Shepley University Professor.
An unexpected reaction to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) solidified Laura Rosenbury’s passion for gender issues.
“I was at church camp one summer when I was 12, and I said I supported the ERA, and one of the male campers promptly punched me in the stomach,” she says. “After pulling us apart and hearing our stories, the camp counselors said that I’d provoked him.”
Rosenbury, JD, professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, grew up in rural Indiana with two very strong grandmothers but in a church community that did not have much of a track record on women’s rights.
“I think it was pretty obvious from a young age that women weren’t given the same opportunities as men and were expected to take on different roles,” she says. “And I didn’t understand why.
“The first time I ever considered the word ‘rights’ was when the ERA was before the states to be ratified. Though it was a new concept to me, I couldn’t understand why people might be opposed to an amendment that would affirm the equal rights of men and women.
“I guess that’s how my gender consciousness came about — a combination of my own personal observations combined with coming of age politically at a time when the ERA was being debated.”
Rosenbury began seriously examining how gender is constructed in society as an undergraduate in women’s studies at Harvard University. After college, she worked at the national office of Planned Parenthood.
“I began to realize that the people doing the most interesting work had law degrees, even if they weren’t the ones litigating in court but instead were working on public policy initiatives,” she says.
“I realized that I could do a lot with a law degree, particularly in the area of gender equality. So that’s why I went to law school.”
At Harvard Law School, Rosenbury was fascinated by the different mode of thinking that was valued in class and the types of advocacy that seemed to succeed in court.
“I developed a confidence that I never had before, particularly when speaking in front of other people,” she says. “During my second year, one of my professors noticed that I had some trouble speaking in class and suggested that I do the Moot Court competition because it was a very structured way to argue — I loved it.
“I continued to be very committed to women’s rights and thinking about gender more broadly, but I also became immersed in a whole wide range of legal issues.”
After law school, Rosenbury clerked for two judges and worked for nearly three years at a big law firm in New York, where she focused on white-collar criminal defense.
“I learned so much by representing those clients,” she says. “I figured out how to take facts that inspired one reaction in me and put them together in a way that I hoped would inspire the exact opposite reaction.
“But it was while I was doing that work that I realized I really missed the focus on gender that had influenced my undergraduate work and a lot of my law school thinking. My work at the firm was all about power and privilege, but I wanted to approach those issues from a much different perspective.”
Rosenbury took the opportunity to teach a feminist legal theory seminar at night as an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School.
“I always knew that I liked writing and that one day maybe I could do legal scholarship, but once I was in the classroom, I was hooked,” she says.
“I didn’t predict I would like the classroom so much,” she says. “And I certainly didn’t predict that one day I would be a co-author on one of the feminist legal theory texts I used to prepare for the seminar.”
Rosenbury joined the Washington University law faculty in 2002.
“I can’t imagine a better place to begin my legal teaching career,” she says. “In part because of the support I received and in part because the faculty is 40 percent women, so there was never a question about whether it was valid for me to continue my past work on gender. It was assumed that it was valid work; the only question was how could I make it sufficiently rigorous, original and substantial.”
Rosenbury says that teaching has given her the opportunity to think more deeply about how gender and other identity categories are constructed by multiple social forces, including law.
“My time in the classroom, working with students to explore the ways that law is never neutral but instead implicitly privileges some groups over others, has really advanced my scholarship,” she says.
“The students offer new perspectives, and we push each other to understand how our own assumptions may affect the ways we frame a problem or analyze an issue,” she says.
“Teaching has been a much more powerful and rewarding experience than I could have ever imagined.”
Kent Syverud, JD, law dean and the Ethan A.H. Shepley University Professor, emphasizes the rewards Rosenbury has brought to her students and school.
“Laura is the kind of transforming teacher and scholar whose dynamic and thoughtful work improves everything around her — the learning of her students, the ideas of her colleagues and the quality of her school,” Syverud says.
Outside the classroom, Rosenbury’s scholarship examines common assumptions about family and care and how those assumptions, which are often supported by law, sustain traditional gender roles.
“I look at why we define family the way we do in our society and why we prioritize the marital relationship over other forms of intimate connections between adults,” she says.
“Friendship is the prime counterexample I’ve used,” she says. “In many ways, I’m trying to get at why we think a marital unit with children is the preferred way of life for all people as opposed to promoting a diversity of family forms and ways of approaching personal life.”
Rosenbury was excited to bring many of these ideas to a student audience when she joined the fourth edition of Feminist Jurisprudence: Cases and Materials, co-authored by Cynthia Grant Bowman, PhD, JD; Deborah Tuerkheimer, JD; and Kimberly Yuracko, PhD, JD.
Rosenbury took responsibility for the chapters on constitutional gender equality, feminist legal theory in general, women and intimate relationships, and women and children. The book was published in November 2010.
In addition to her teaching and scholarship, Rosenbury recently took on her role as associate dean for research and faculty development. She assists faculty members in finding support for their scholarship and works with the dean and vice dean to advance the scholarly and intellectual growth of the law school community.
“It’s a real challenge, because I feel like I really just found my scholarly voice myself,” Rosenbury says. “But it’s rewarding to find ways to assist other faculty members and raise the school’s scholarly profile.
“I didn’t predict this part of my career either, but clearly I should get out of the business of predictions.”
Fast facts about Laura Rosenbury
Title: Associate dean for research and faculty development; professor of law
Education: AB, Harvard-Radcliffe College; JD, Harvard Law School
Recent project: Rosenbury recently joined the fourth edition of Feminist Jurisprudence: Cases and Materials, co-authored by Cynthia Grant Bowman, PhD, JD; Deborah Tuerkheimer, JD; and Kimberly Yuracko, PhD, JD. She took responsibility for the chapters on constitutional gender equality, feminist legal theory in general, women and intimate relationships, and women and children.
Hobbies: Gardening and travel