A Nation at Risk: Private Insurance and the Law in Modern America


Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowships for Recently Tenured Scholars




For residence at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress during academic year 2022-2023


In July 1983, women’s liberation activists marched in the sticky summer heat of the nation’s capital to demand sex equality in insurance. The protest underscored both the importance of private insurance to social welfare and the inequities this generated. Activists highlighted a tension between antidiscrimination principles, which mandate neutrality in the face of difference, and actuarial principles, which use sex, race, and other identity characteristics as proxies for risk. In addition, activists criticized the ways in which private insurance entrenches inequality by segmenting populations and selectively spreading risk. This project examines the legal history of private insurance across the twentieth century. The actuarial sciences acquired authority under law by portending to objectivity and thereby obscuring how ideas about familial, gender, and race difference shaped insurance practices. By transforming collective, public problems into individualized, private ones, insurance law has impoverished our political response to systemic insecurities, creating “A Nation at Risk.”