Fineman elected to AAAS, named Outstanding Scholar

Martha A. Fineman
Martha Albertson Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies and a leading center for independent policy research. Fineman is among four Emory professors elected to AAAS this year and only the second from Emory Law to ever receive the honor.

Fineman is an internationally recognized law and society scholar and a leading authority on critical legal theory and feminist jurisprudence. In response to the honor, Fineman said, “This is a recognition of the work that I’ve done that has not always been readily accepted. That means a great deal to me. It means that the larger academic community recognizes my contributions.” The contributions she references have been made in a field that Fineman pioneered.

She is the founding director of the Feminism and Legal Theory (FLT) Project. Begun in 1984, the project holds workshops and “uncomfortable conversations,” hosting visiting scholars from around the world. The project has produced 11 books thus far, including At the Boundaries of Law: Feminism and Legal Theory, the first published anthology of feminist legal theory, and Transcending the Boundaries of Law: Generations of Feminism and Legal Theory, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the project.

She also is the founder and director of the Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative (VHC), which emerged from the FLT Project in 2008 and provides a forum for scholars interested in engaging the concepts of “vulnerability” and “resilience” and the idea of a “responsive state” in constructing a universal approach to address the human condition.

The scholarly project of VHC is reconceiving the legal subject. Rather than valorizing abstract concepts like freedom or liberty, it begins by focusing on the insights to be gained from reasoning from the body, which represents and defines our shared human condition. Vulnerability theory explores how institutions and relationships can be structured justly — recognizing that many relationships are inherently unequal and require asymmetric assignments of responsibility.

These concepts are currently being used as a lens through which to examine numerous areas of law and sociology across the globe: Fineman’s work recently inspired a symposium of the Law and Political Economy Project. She also wrote a piece for an art exhibit by Jody Wood, currently on display at Art Museum, Skövde Kulturhus. Fineman says the exhibit, called Social Pharmacy, is within Woods’ signature style of taking “significant social issues or practices to explore and combining the empirical insights of the social scientist with the critical and creative vision of the artist.” Atieno Samandri is using vulnerability theory in her work on environment, shifting thought away from a rights perspective. She is working toward publishing a book on climate change and human vulnerability under international law and fostering collaboration with environmental law faculty at African and other universities through the Fulbright network. In this way, she’s able to come up with a solution that’s better able to serve more people.

There are scholars in Brazil currently translating some of Fineman’s papers into Portuguese, and there are significant communities of scholars using vulnerability theory in several European countries and in China. The VHC held its first vulnerability workshop in Africa last year. And the initiative has had visiting scholars and researchers from Denmark, South Korea, England, China, Romania, Netherlands, Chile, Spain, Wales, Turkey, Nigeria, India, Sweden, Israel, Australia, Canada, Bangladesh, Italy, Iran, Ireland, Norway, Uganda, and Belgium, among other countries. And the applications of vulnerability theory abound, as is evident through the numerous comments and articles on the VHC ScholarBlog.

An American Bar Foundation Lifetime Fellow, Fineman, earlier this year, was honored with the Outstanding Scholar Award from the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation. She is the recipient of the 2017 Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Law Schools, and served as the 2019–2020 Distinguished Lecturer, Hagler Institute for Advanced Study, Texas A&M University. She received the 2018 Kate Stoneman Award from the State University of New York, Albany, and gave the Seeger Lecture on Jurisprudence at Valparaiso University in 2017. She was awarded an honorary degree from Lund University in Sweden in 2013.Prior to coming to Emory in 2004, Fineman served as the Maurice T. Moore Professor at Columbia University, then joined the Cornell Law School faculty, where she held the Dorothea Clark Professorship, the first endowed chair in feminist jurisprudence in the nation. 

“I’m proud to see yet another distinguished class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences include so many exceptional Emory faculty members,” says President Gregory L. Fenves. “This is a highly deserved recognition of both the excellence and impact that these four scholars have had as researchers, educators, communicators, and innovators across a range of disciplines.” Dean Mary Anne Bobinski echoed this praise, adding that Fineman’s election is “a singular achievement.”

The elected Emory professors are among 261 newly-elected members of the American Academy, which was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock, and others who believed the new republic should honor exceptionally accomplished individuals and engage them in advancing the public good. The academy’s dual mission remains essentially the same more than 240 years later, with honorees from increasingly diverse fields and with work focused on the arts, democracy, education, global affairs and science. “We are celebrating a depth of achievements in a breadth of areas,” says David Oxtoby, president of the American Academy. “These individuals excel in ways that excite us and inspire us at a time when recognizing excellence, commending expertise and working toward the common good is absolutely essential to realizing a better future.”

Earlier this year, Fineman was given the American Bar Foundation’s 2022 Outstanding Scholar Award. She was recognized at the 66th Annual Fellows Awards Banquet on Feb. 15. The Foundation’s first Outstanding Scholar Award was given in 1957, and previous recipients include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Akhil Reed Amar, Lawrence H. Tribe, Judith Resnick, and Archibald Cox, among others. The ABF Fellows is a global honorary society that recognizes attorneys, judges, law faculty and legal scholars whose public and private careers have demonstrated outstanding dedication to the highest principles of the legal profession and to the welfare of their communities. Membership is limited to one percent of lawyers licensed to practice in each jurisdiction. They hail from nearly 40 countries, are nominated by their peers, and selected by the ABF Board.

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