Campus & Community

MacKinnon: ‘Women are not human’

6 min read

Scholar/activist decries legal status of women

Women are not in charge. Worldwide, it is men — not their gender counterparts — who have power over families, clans, villages, cities, and nations.

That may not seem like a new message. But lawyer, feminist author, and international equal rights advocate Catharine A. MacKinnon gives it a new subtlety, adds legal context — and even includes a ray of hope.

MacKinnon, who once taught at Harvard Law School, is a professor of law at the University of Michigan and one of the most widely cited legal scholars in the English language. She visited the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study last week (April 19) to deliver the annual Maurine and Robert Rothschild Lecture: “Women’s Status, Men’s States.”

MacKinnon — tall, regal, and with a gift for precise talk — has star power, and drew 250 people to a jammed Radcliffe Gymnasium. Her specialty is “a scrutiny of power, and its unequal distribution,” said Nancy F. Cott, Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and Harvard’s Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History.

In the 1970s, MacKinnon, who has both a law degree and a doctorate in political science from Yale, successfully used federal Title VII law to argue that sexual harassment is sex discrimination, an interpretation that made her famous, and turned employment law on its ear.

In the 1980s, MacKinnon — who represented “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace (Linda Susan Boreman) — used civil rights law as an argument against pornography, inspiring strict new obscenity laws in Canada and a U.S. debate still alive today. (MacKinnon’s unyielding stand that pornography is a form of sex discrimination earned her the enmity of many censorship critics as well as a coterie of self-described “sex-positive feminists.”)

In the 1990s, she started legal work on behalf of international clients, including Bosnian and Croatian women who had been systematically raped during wartime by Serb forces. The resulting U.S. court case in 2000 won a $745 million settlement for the women, and was the first to recognize rape as an act of genocide.

At Radcliffe, MacKinnon could just as well have called her lecture “Are Women Human?” That’s the provocative title of her latest book, a collection of essays published last year by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

In case you wondered, the answer to that question is no — perhaps to be expected in a book that includes an essay titled “Rape as Nationbuilding.”

In legal terms, women are not human, according to MacKinnon, who discovered that fact while parsing the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 1948 United Nations document defines what a human is, and what people are universally entitled to — but fails to explicitly recognize women, and their “full human status in social reality,” said MacKinnon.

Being human first requires being “real to power,” she said, and women are not. While most states explicitly guarantee women sexual equality, the reality — filtered through cultural norms — is often quite different. Women have status, but not a real place in statehood.

Why? “The state is of and by men and usually for them,” said MacKinnon. “Gender inequality is a global system.”

In turn, male-centered states dominate civil society, including life at home. “The deepest, darkest recesses of the private is where women are injured the most,” said MacKinnon. Home is on the other side of a “public-private line” beyond which nations are unwilling to impose the force of law.

This public-private line also divides one state from another, making it unlikely that one entity will sue or challenge another over violations against women.

Even the formal international protocol to protect women — the 2000 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women — is flawed, said MacKinnon. Unlike international protocols that ban torture and racial discrimination, it includes no provision for one state to sue another over violations.

To counter all this, women are increasingly working “from the bottom up” to challenge gender dominance, she said — including the establishment of their own international nongovernmental organizations. (MacKinnon works for one, Equality Now.)

She called international groups and related gatherings in the past three decades the “authentic locale” in the fight for international rights for women.

But at the same time, MacKinnon said her conception of maleness “is not an epithet, nor is it about some form of political correctness and name-calling.”

“Not everything men do is male,” she said, that is, “marked by their dominance of the other sex.”

Despite the reality of male-dominated political structures — and here’s the ray of hope — there are signs that international law is addressing women’s issues in serious ways, said MacKinnon. “I see a new model of human rights in the making.”

One sign was her 2000 lawsuit Kadic v. Karadzic, where a New York City jury awarded damages to women for crimes committed in another country — “a signal victory on the jurisdictional front,” said MacKinnon.

Meanwhile, a few nations seem to be making headway in protections of women’s rights, including Canada, Sweden, and South Africa, she said.

And regions, too. MacKinnon cited two recent protocols: The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (2001), and the African Protocol on the Rights of Women (2003).

“Sex equality is moving towards a pre-emptory norm,” said MacKinnon, and perhaps even toward the idea that violence against women is “a violation of international law.”

But along with what she calls these “moments of motion and signal flares of hope,” MacKinnon sees signs that women continue to have secondary status in nearly every culture. In the United States, abuse is one sign, she said: Three thousand women a year are murdered by male intimates — as many as those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

MacKinnon said a comparison to the terror attacks is apt, since abusers, like terrorists, are “nonstate actors” outside the control of conventional states.

Widespread abuse of women, in fact, “is a war already,” she said.

“I’m not in love with what they’re doing in Iraq,” said MacKinnon, spinning her war analogy further. “But it’s what men being serious looks like. When are they going to get serious about us?”