An­tonella Gam­botto-Burke

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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