Aya Gruber

Aya Gruber’s work tackles issues such as how the legal system handles sex crimes, whether policing is an effective solution for problems like homelessness, and the intersections of racism, feminism and mass incarceration. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Gould)


Q&A with Aya Gruber: The link between law and feminism

An expert in criminal law and feminist legal theory, Gruber is a powerful voice for women’s rights in the courtroom and the classroom.

June 26, 2024 By Nina Raffio

USC’s Aya Gruber is a nationally recognized expert in criminal law and procedure, feminism, and critical theory. Her work tackles critical societal issues, such as how the legal system handles sex crimes, whether policing is an effective solution for problems like homelessness, and the intersections of racism, feminism and mass incarceration — themes she explored in her first book, The Feminist War on Crime.

A frequent source for media, Gruber has commented on the challenges in applying traditional criminal laws to sexual assaults that occur in the metaverse, as well as on high-profile cases like the E. Jean Carroll v. Donald J. Trump defamation trial and the recall of Judge Aaron Persky, who presided over the infamous Brock Turner case.

Gruber, the Harold Medill Heimbaugh Professor of Law at the USC Gould School of Law, met with USC News to reflect on the historical trajectory of women’s rights, emphasizing both hard-won advancements and ongoing challenges, while also sharing the personal journey that inspired her passion for this critical area of study.

Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade and ended federal protections for the right to abortion through its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. What are some of the lasting impacts of this ruling that you are currently monitoring?

Gruber: Today, we’re seeing a convergence of factors: Women are increasingly asserting their sexual, reproductive and political freedoms. At the same time, the mainstreaming of regressive and hyper-masculine ideologies — fueled by figures like Trump — has resurrected antiquated ideas about women’s roles and “purity.”

Efforts to restrict reproductive rights represent a regression from 20th-century strides toward gender equity. Limitations on medical abortion care, even in cases of endangerment or involving minors, alongside attempts to curtail access to birth control, reflect alarming societal shifts. These developments highlight fundamental issues surrounding women’s rights, particularly their bodily autonomy.

On the criminal law side, there’s a troubling trend where legal authorities are considering incarcerating doctors for providing birth control or abortion. There’s even talk of prosecuting individuals who aid minors in crossing state lines for abortions as child traffickers. It’s disconcerting to see criminal law enforcement melding with what appears to be a renewed assault on women’s rights.

How did we get here?

Gruber: Many people see the abortion debate as having to do specifically with 1960s politics, where abortion wasn’t a significant issue until it became part of the Republican agenda, eventually culminating in the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to roll back Roe v. Wade in 2022. That’s the stock political story on it. But as someone who studies how attitudes toward women and their roles in society have evolved throughout history, I see a broader historical context.

For example, in colonial history and throughout the 19th century, women were confined to a specific societal role: that of a wife and mother. Within marriage, men held all property rights and dictated the terms of sexual relations. Women lacked access to birth control and faced compulsory motherhood, heterosexuality and sexual activity. They were expected to serve as guardians of virtue and chastity. All this fed into a sexual double standard that persists today: Men can be sexual to a point of pride, but women cannot.

The 20th century saw a significant reversal of these norms with women achieving equal citizenship to men. But recent efforts have sought to erode this progress, particularly by curtailing women’s reproductive rights. This erosion happens in a few different ways: first, by restricting access to medical abortion care, even in cases where a woman’s life is at risk or if she is a minor; and second, by limiting access to birth control. There is a growing trend toward discussing and allowing corporations to restrict access to birth control.

This issue is not just about public health, although there are many reasons beyond family planning for taking hormonal birth control. It fundamentally concerns women’s rights — specifically, the right to sovereignty over one’s own body, which has been hard-won.

What are some of the tools we have for addressing these challenges?

Gruber: One of the best tools we have is speaking up, learning and being unafraid to engage in conversations about sex, reproduction and gender. These are painful and difficult discussions, and we need to approach them with sensitivity and skill.

From a feminist history perspective, avoiding these topics is counterproductive. Historically, women were excluded from juries and legal professions because it was assumed they couldn’t handle discussions about sensitive issues like rape or murder.

For example, issues like police brutality and racism, and the potential outlawing of birth control, both intersect with themes of sexuality and gender. We need to talk about these subjects to make progress, especially at this moment when society is at a critical inflection point.

How did you discover your passion for this area of study? 

Gruber: It’s a bit of a long story that traces back to L.A. During World War II, my mother, then a child, was placed in a Japanese detention camp. Her family later settled in East L.A., and some of her siblings even attended USC, which was quite remarkable for that time. Growing up, I often heard these stories.

In the ’80s, these same stories shaped my perspective on the war on drugs and the war on crime in a way that differed from many of my peers. On TV, what I saw were countless people of color being taken away to jail. It reminded me of those mass detentions from my mother’s time.

By the time I was in college, women outnumbered men in enrollment, yet faced a wage gap that exceeded 75 cents to the dollar. This stark gender inequality prompted me to rethink mainstream feminism, which often focused narrowly on combating rape and domestic violence. While these are critical issues, I questioned whether achieving gender justice solely through criminal law — imprisonment one case at a time — was the most effective approach. This dilemma persisted through law school, where I grappled with the desire to defend marginalized communities against a criminal justice system I believed was flawed.

I have been exploring this dilemma in my writing ever since — when criminal law is a friend to feminism, whether feminists should be fighting for more criminal laws or looking for alternatives outside of criminal law.