Butterfly Politics By Catharine A. MacKinnon Belknap Press, 504pp, $69.99 (HB)
The complex, volatile sociocultural interplay of sex and power is the legal territory American law professor and writer Catharine MacKinnon prefers. MacKinnon — radical, passionate, incorruptible and a beautiful literary stylist — has always fought “the lie of women’s natural inferiority to men and men’s natural superiority to women”.
This ideological brawl is not limited to the courtroom. Butterfly Politics, her 13th book, is a devastating salvo fired in the gender wars.
A fierce and lucid anthology of essays on subjects ranging from torture to pornography, this book has a single overriding aim: to effect global change in the pursuit of equality. The title was inspired by Edward Norton Lorenz’s 1972 reference to the impact of a butterfly’s wings on the weather. Or as MacKinnon puts it, how “small human intervention in an unstable political system can sooner or later have large complex reverberations’’.
Many of the pieces, written over a 40-year period, are responsible for introducing concepts that are now familiar, if not established. In particular, MacKinnon’s stunning legal victory in reframing rape as a genocidal weapon.
Others, such as her analysis of prostitution, are catalysts for changes that are taking place. The Swedish model of prostitution, for example, which “decriminalises people sold in prostitution and criminalises sellers and, most distinctively, buyers’’.
Changing the legal definition of rape, which remains “internationally predicated on coercion, with consent so irrelevant as not to require mention”, is a frustration, but MacKinnon’s triumphs — among them her contribution to the development of the now accepted international concept of “gender crime” — are significant.
The eldest child and only girl of three, MacKinnon is the daughter of George E. MacKinnon, a tough, congenial, well-regarded lawyer, congressman and judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Raised on the understanding that social change pivots on legal reform, she quickly understood the law “is words in power; it is written by power. Its power is not unlimited but it is real.”
She became a lawyer because she wanted to change the world for women.
She calls on lawyers to live “a meaningful life in the law, one that sustains you” rather than capitulating to powerful financial incentives to conform. “Hold on to your vision, hold on to your voice … Most lawyers do not go near enough or far enough.”
The practice of corporate law would have made MacKinnon a wealthy woman. Instead, she has dedicated her life to exposing the iniquities and ideological barbarity to which we, as a culture, have become desensitised. Despite the fact that the world is half female, girls and women are battered, raped, sexually and emotionally abused, prostituted and “increas- ingly live pornographic lives in contexts saturated more or less with pornography”. Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, earn one-10th of its income, and own less than one-100th of its property. Indeed they are more likely to be property than to own any, and have not been permitted to vote until very recently — and even then not in all countries.
Improbably, all these outrages are nurtured by the law.
MacKinnon writes that the subordination of women to men is not only socially and legally institutionalised but “cumulatively and systematically deprives women of human dignity, respect, resources, physical security, credibility, full membership in our communities, speech, and power”.
This, she emphasises, is an empirical description of a war against women. It is not a philosophical category, a construct, an abstract analysis, or any kind of universal essence. It describes a diverse and perverse concrete reality of social practices and social meanings, such that … to be a woman ‘‘is not yet a name for a way of being human’’.
Rape is the crystallisation of this philosophy. Founded on the idea that “power takes a male form, specifically a white one” and that, concomitantly, powerlessness is female, the law requires extensive revision. MacKinnon asks: where women are chattel or have only recently legally emerged from the condition of being chattel, “what can rape mean?” If women exist to be sexually used, to what sexual use of them are men not entitled?
The ABC has reported that sexual assault is one of the most difficult offences to prosecute in Australia, where some 85 per cent of offences are unreported. Thirty-eight per cent of cases are withdrawn, primarily due to the victim’s reluctance to proceed.
Why? As MacKinnon points out, protracted court processes and the compounding of trauma through sadistic cross-examination techniques are ordeals most victims cannot endure. British violinist Frances Andrade, for example, was 48 at the time of the 2013 case she brought against her former teacher and his ex-wife. In court, Kate Blackwell QC branded her a “liar and fantasist”. “This feels like rape all over again,” Andrade told the court. She committed suicide a week after giving evidence.
Legal scholar and author Catharine A. MacKinnon