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The Arc of Women’s Rights: How Did We Get Here and What’s Next?

Posted: November 8, 2022

On October 26, 2022, Villanova Law Professor Michelle Madden Dempsey, Interim Director of the Penn Women’s Center Elisa Foster, and Drexel Law Professor Elena Cohen, discussed the last fifty years of women’s rights. The Villanova Law Women’s Network (VLWN) organized the event to evaluate historical perspectives on women’s rights and discuss the trajectory of laws and critical issues affecting women. This panel was moderated by Villanova Law Professor and Director of the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, Shea Rhodes.  

To begin the discussion, Elisa Foster introduced the history of the Penn’s Women Center, which was founded in 1973. The Penn’s Women Center was founded to help combat sexual assault, violence, and discrimination on campus. The Center has roots in social work, counselling, and advocacy. Foster also discussed possible ways to make the Center more gender inclusive and noted that “It is important that we are all invested in gender equity.”

Next, Professor Rhodes asked Professor Cohen what it means to be mindful and inclusive and also spotlight and acknowledge historically marginalized groups. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” responded Professor Cohen. She further explained that mindful inclusion allows all historically marginalized groups to rise together by listening to each other. It is paramount to jointly address problems and come up with tailored solutions.

Professor Dempsey then highlighted that this year is Title IX’s 50th anniversary, and gave the audience a brief history of the last fifty years of laws affecting women’s rights. She discussed that laws are evolving to fulfill the broader goals of protecting not only women’s rights, but also the rights of other protected groups. Next, Professor Rhodes followed this discussion with a talk about the #MeToo Movement, stating that “we are inundated all day every day with issues impacting women and the LGBTQ+ community.”  Furthermore, the influx of bad news can cast a shadow on the progress of gender equality. This led the panelists to examine and identify what gives them hope for a better future of equality, equity, and inclusion.

On the theme of hope, Professor Dempsey explained that she is a “hope-a-holic.” She told the audience that the more we adhere to traditional ideas of gender, we will continue to perpetuate traditional patriarchal dominance. Professor Dempsey urged the crowd to break down gender stereotypes and work towards intersectional gender equality and feminism. Next, Professor Cohen explained that she is inspired by her students. She further commented that her students are engaged, attentive, and passionate about dismantling gender stereotypes and fighting discrimination. The law is living, so Professor Cohen also finds hope in changing the laws.

Thank you to Professor Rhodes, Professor Dempsey, Elisa Foster, and Professor Cohen for highlighting the turbulent history of women’s rights in the United States and for instilling hope for the future. A special thanks to Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law for hosting and the Villanova Law Women’s Network for organizing the event.

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University. 

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