Osgoode student Dana Phillips wins University-wide award for exceptional LLM thesis

Dana Phillips, a current Osgoode PhD student who defended her LLM thesis in the fall, has received one of this year’s three York University-wide awards for exceptional Master-level thesis. Phillips, whose supervisor is Osgoode Professor Benjamin Berger, Associate Dean (Students), was presented with the award from York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) at a luncheon on Wednesday, April 27. In any given year, FGS awards a maximum of six prizes for exceptional theses – three for Master’s theses and three for Doctoral dissertations. The awards are valued at $1,000 and $2,000 respectively.

“I’m very honoured to receive this award,” Phillips said. “So much work and thought goes into a thesis, and it’s wonderful to be recognized for that. I’m especially grateful to my supervisor, Ben Berger, for his ongoing support and encouragement. Thanks are also due to my second reader, Sonia Lawrence, who gave (and continues to give) me a lot of thoughtful feedback on my work.”

Phillips’ LLM thesis, entitled Let’s Talk about Sexual Assault: A Feminist Exploration of the Relationship between Legal and Experiential Discourses, challenges the tendency within feminist legal thought to imagine a sharp division between law and lived experience, and specifically between feminist methods that engage legal discourse and those that invoke grassroots narratives grounded in experience.

Phillips compares recent legal discourse on sexual assault—focusing on two Supreme Court of Canada decisions—with women’s own accounts of sexual violence, as presented in mainstream news media in the wake of the 2014 Jian Ghomeshi story.

The abstract for her LLM thesis states that the findings, examined through the lens of feminist scholarship, “support a view of legal and experiential discourses on sexual violence as deeply intertwined and mutually constitutive. While law shapes accounts of firsthand experience, experiential accounts also hold the potential to shape, or “reform,’ the law. This understanding suggests a different vision of the nature and process of law reform.”

The Examination Committee that considered Phillips’ LLM thesis and nominated her for the award consisted of Berger, Osgoode Professor Sonia Lawrence (Chair, Reader) and Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies Professor Amanda Glassbeek, Criminology (Internal/External).

“Phillips has combined an important topic with her clear and accessible writing in this excellent effort to analyse the relationship between changing definitions of sexual assault offered by legal actors and the discourses that women use to define and describe their sexual experiences, “ the Examination Committee noted. “She has corralled an impressive range of primary and secondary sources into a cogent and well organized argument, one that we hope and expect will appear in a published form in the near future.”

The Examination Committee went on to say that Phillips’ thesis “responds in a timely and relevant way to social debates and does so with an extraordinary attentiveness and sensitivity to both the lived realities of violence against women and the theoretical debates and conversations that help us to think about those realities in new ways. Her key contribution here is to imagine the ways that feminist legal scholarship can move forward by conceptualizing legal reforms and grassroots feminist anti-violence movements as mutually constitutive.”