A Conversation with Professor Lisa R. Pruitt: On Feminist Legal Theory and Justice

On November 17, I attended the Panel of Powerful Women, an event organized by California Women's List at UC Davis. One of the panelists was Professor Lisa R. Pruitt, who not only teaches at the UCD School of Law (including a class on Feminist Legal Theory), but also assisted in the landmark prosecution of rape during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. This was the first ever prosecution of rape as a war crime and the subject of the award-winning documentary The Uncondemned. I had the great honor of speaking to Professor Pruitt about her work, women's empowerment, and politics.

From http://www.theuncondemned.com/lisa-pruitt/

How did you become a law professor?

I was more of a writing/humanities-oriented student than a science/math-oriented student when I was growing up. I also liked to argue a lot; my mother always joked that I was going to be a lawyer because I was so argumentative. But I was the first in my family to go to college, so law school seemed like a reach. I didn't even know if I was going to be able to succeed in undergrad. I got my degree in journalism and then realized that I didn't have a journalist's personality. Starting journalists in Arkansas were making about $10,000 at the time and that wasn't even enough to pay my student loans, so I decided to go to law school. I decided that I'd very much like to be a law professor and I had the opportunity to do a PhD afterward. It's not an easy path, because academia is very competitive, but I've been very fortunate to get a tenure track job. I did work as a lawyer for about 7 years, so I did have some really fabulous experiences as a lawyer before I came to the academy.

I first heard about you because of your role in prosecuting rape as a war crime in Rwanda. Could you talk about that?

I was working at an international organization in the Netherlands when the Office of the Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was in The Hague. They were looking for someone to go to Rwanda to improve the investigation of rapes that had occurred during the genocide. I was just finishing my doctoral dissertation in feminist legal theory and had worked as a rape crisis counselor when I was in law school, so I had both practical and academic skills for the job.

The title I was given was Gender Consultant. I had several tasks: more broadly to improve investigation of sexual assaults, which was very lacking in sensitivity, but I also looked at the evidence against Jean-Paul Akayesu (the former mayor of Taba commune during the genocide). There was an existing indictment against Akayesu, but that was only for killings. But there were women's non-government organizations who had good evidence that rape had been very widespread during the genocide, including in Taba commune. I looked at the evidence that was already "in-house" at ICTR to determine if we had enough to amend the indictment against Akayesu to include sexual assault charges. I argued that we did - we had the names of a number of women who were either rape survivors or witnesses to rapes.

I met a great deal of resistance from investigators. A lot of it was along the lines of "Well, everybody knows that men rape women in war and the rapes are not really part of the genocide; they're just ancillary crimes that occurred, they weren't committed with genocidal intent." Basically, they might not qualify as war crimes and even if they did, they're not as important as the killings. Of course I, along with women's rights advocates outside the ICTR/Tribunal, felt quite the opposite. It was more than symbolic, obviously, for the women who were raped, but we also wanted to get the clear judicial precedents that rape as an act of genocide and as a crime against humanity can and should be prosecuted. At some point, while Akayesu was being tried, a witness mentioned seeing rapes in Taba at the Bureau Communal - the mayor's office. The trial was suspended and investigators were sent back into the field to talk to rape survivors in Taba, ones that we already knew about dating back to my 1996 report. They were able to find the women and get their statements, and so the indictment was amended and the trial went forward with sexual assault charges and was ultimately successful.

Photo credits: From the documentary The Uncondemned 

You talked about women's empowerment at the Panel of Powerful Women that was organized by California Women's List at UCD in November. That was days after the election.

I have so many strong feelings about this current political moment. I'm among the voters who were really surprised that so many people were willing to vote for a candidate like Donald Trump, who was so openly dismissive of women and used such openly degrading and misogynistic language, as well as one who was openly racist and engaged in race-baiting. I feel that in the post-election period, the media has been paying far too little attention to the misogyny that underlay this election, whether it was directed at Hillary Clinton or evidenced in the willingness of people to support such an openly sexist candidate. That is very disappointing. I know for many voters, gender issues aren't as important as they are to someone like me, but to tolerate a candidate who is so blatantly hostile to women is very difficult to understand.

Your work also deals with how law intersects with region and specifically for rural populations. Can you tell us about that?

I have been writing about rural-urban difference in relation to law for more than a decade now. My work falls under the umbrella of legal geography, but it's highly cross-disciplinary; I draw a lot on rural sociology as well as other studies. That work on rural populations and rural poverty has drawn me into writing about low-income whites, which is my own background.

There are frankly too few people who are class migrants in the academy. There's a new initiative at UC Davis for those of us professors who are first-generation college graduates to make ourselves known as #firstgeneration or #firstgen so we can mentor other first-gen students. Not only are there material challenges - the stuff these students might not have the money to buy - but there are also psychological barriers for first-generation students, and the hope is we can encourage students to aim high and show them that it can be done. Part of what we saw in the election is that college tuition has risen and income inequality is such a force to be reckoned with, so a lot of people are realizing that not only is upward mobility out of their kids' reach, but that they’re actually seeing downward mobility. If you don't have academics from that background, i.e. working-class origins, the professiorate will be less likely to study those issues and less meaningful insights will be garnered, published and acted upon. 

From https://law.ucdavis.edu/faculty/pruitt/

What are you teaching this semester? [UCD Law is on the semester system.]

I'm teaching Torts, which is a basic first-year course that's required of law students. I teach two seminars: one is Feminist Legal Theory, but this semester, I'm teaching a course I created nearly a decade ago, Law and Rural Livelihoods.

What advice do you have for young women who might be interested in getting into law, politics, feminism, etc.?

Go for it. Don't hold back. Lean in - I'm not entirely a Sheryl Sandberg disciple, but I do think she offers a lot of wisdom in her encouragement of women. Be bold, be strong, do what it takes to shore up your confidence and grab that brass ring. There are going to be disappointments, but if you don't go after what you want, nobody is going to come and give it to you. I'm a big believer in the idea that women may not get what they want because they don't ask. Maybe I'm told "no" a lot, but I think it's better to be assertive.

I was at an event called Emerge California, which is a program to mentor women who plan to run for public office. I have a former student in the program now and I'm so proud of her. It's the investment of energy and time and human capital in young women like my former student that's going to get us out of this mess we are in. We need to cultivate our pipeline of women leaders and these programs like California Women's List and Emerge California's and Emily's List are super important to that end.

So whatever it is that you think that you want - career-wise, degree-wise, etc. - get the information that you need to make your decision, but don't hold back. There are going to be plenty of other people who will try to hold you back; you shouldn't be the one holding yourself back.