Professor of Law and Associate Dean
Professor Katharine Baker is an accomplished professional woman – a former litigator and a tenured full professor and associate dean at Chicago-Kent – who hasn't lost sight of important domestic issues relating to women.
Issues relating to sex and gender, specifically the valuation of care-taking labor and societal attitudes toward rape, are Professor Baker's scholarly stock-in-trade.
After earning a bachelor's degree in social studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Chicago, she cut her teeth in the legal profession as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, where she concentrated on civil enforcement of environmental matters. During that time, she litigated some of the leading cases on waste cleanup, sometimes dealing with issues that, as she puts it, "only nerds with a deep interest in waste management" would find exciting.
Despite a successful track record prosecuting cases, Baker left the Department of Justice and entered the world of academia because, she explains, "I liked asking questions more than I liked winning. Winning is thrilling, but academia allows you to keep asking questions without worrying if the answers will hurt your clients."
The academic environment provides Baker the freedom to ask the questions she finds important. After an early foray into environmental scholarship, Baker's work now concentrates on the issues of rape, feminism and the role of women in the family. In academia, she is free to elucidate such issues by tapping into disciplines beyond the law, which she does in such articles as Biology for Feminists and Dialectics and Domestic Abuse.
"Law, for the most part, is about regulating human behavior," she says. "In order to regulate human behavior, we have to understand humans. Many other disciplines, from history to psychology to literature, often do a more comprehensive job of studying human behavior than traditional legal scholarship does. Laws are more effective, and more just, when they incorporate what we know about the human condition from other disciplines."
Of late, Baker's scholarly focus has shifted from rape and other forms of physical subjugation of women to how societal norms prevent equality between the sexes.
"I think that, for many years, the law and legal scholarship focused on rape and sexual harassment," she says of women's legal issues. "I certainly think those issues are important, but equally important is the way in which gender roles within the family continue to subordinate women's roles socially."
Baker argues for making the workplace more accommodating to working parents, with shortened work days and more flexibility, and with a recognition that the work of a caretaker is as important as many forms of professional work.
"We've never valued [child-rearing] legally," she says. "We've never thought about it as something that needs to be honored. We don't support people who raise children, and we don't think of the ramifications that follow from one group of people being assigned, socially, the responsibility of child rearing."
Baker's next avenue of research will examine how contract law meshes with family law. Although the idea of formal contract law in the context of marriage may be unappealing to much of the public, Baker intends to show that in certain aspects of marriage, contract principles can be useful.
"I think there are some marital promises, implicit and explicit, that the law needs to enforce," she says. "The law cannot make people love each other, but it can force people to share resources. The degree to which people are forced to share resources should depend on the degree of reliance and the sense of expectation, two concepts that are integral to contract law, but two concepts that can vary significantly from relationship to relationship. Contract law, as opposed to traditional family law, leaves more room to honor individual differences between marriages while still enforcing the promises that need to be enforced. "
While Baker devotes much of her time to scholarship, teaching students is her primary responsibility, one she has grown to love in the years since joining Chicago-Kent's faculty in 1993.
"It took at least three years for me to get a full command of what I wanted to do," she says about teaching. "But of course, I'm still learning. That's the joy of teaching."
Baker teaches in the areas of family law, property law, feminism and evidence, using what she calls a "semi-Socratic" method that complements her inquisitive nature. "There's very little lecture," she says of her teaching style. "I ask a lot of questions. I ask questions that I hope will make students realize what's important."
And there is no sparing students who feel uncomfortable speaking in front of a class.
"I call on all students because it's important to learn how to speak," she says. "I think law school needs to focus on that more. People who are uncomfortable presenting ideas orally may have a harder time in law school, but they will learn more by conquering their fears, and that will serve them well in the long run."