Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues by Catharine A. MacKinnon

| March 31, 2007
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Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues, Catharine A. MacKinnon (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 432 pp., $ 35.00 cloth.

In April 2006, Catharine MacKinnon was interviewed about her new book, Are Women Human?, for BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour.” The presenter, Jenni Murray, had one main question that she repeated throughout the short interview to the exclusion of any discussion of MacKinnon’s arguments: Wasn’t the book’s title simply too controversial to be taken seriously?

Though frustrating, Murray’s unwillingness to engage with the arguments of Are Women Human? was strangely appropriate. A recurring theme of MacKinnon’s book is that it is extremely difficult to get violence against women taken seriously. MacKinnon’s fundamental claim is that the violence and abuse routinely inflicted on women by men is not treated with the same seriousness accorded to a human rights violation, or torture, or terrorism, or a war crime, or a crime against humanity, or an atrocity, despite resembling each of these things closely at least and precisely at most. Thus, MacKinnon asks “why the torture of women by men is not seen as torture” (p. 21); why violence against women within the borders of a state is not seen as a human rights violation; why the mass rape of Bosnian and Croatian women by Serbs is not seen as an act of genocide against those ethnic groups as such; why the mass rape of women in general in peacetime is not seen as an act of genocide against women as such; why, “women not being considered a people, there is as yet no international law against destroying the group women as such” (p. 230); why the terror imposed by the violence of male dominance is not seen as the sort of terrorism against which a government might see fit to wage war; why atrocities against women “do not count as war crimes unless a war among men is going on at the same time” (p. 261); and why, when approximately 3,000 women are killed by men in the United States each year, we refer to that state of affairs as “peacetime.”

MacKinnon describes the extent and nature of violence against women in the context of the national and international legal frameworks that do a better or (more usually) worse job of countering it. Both the facts and the arguments are hard-hitting. MacKinnon’s writing is astonishingly powerful, combining a compelling air of authority and outrage with a sense of despair at the enormity of women’s domination by men. It is hard to disagree with her central thesis that much violence against women has the severity of a human rights violation. Moreover, MacKinnon provides a compelling critique of the doctrine that only states can violate international law, and that only transborder atrocities merit international intervention.

Are Women Human? contains philosophical discussion as well as applied political and legal argument. One such discussion concerns the concepts of universality and difference and engages with debates on multiculturalism. In the context of a critique of postmodernism, MacKinnon argues against both relativism and essentialism. Against relativism, she notes that many multicultural defences, or “defences of local differences,” are in fact “often simply a defence of male power in its local guise” (p. 53). Criticizing these multicultural differences does not imply cultural imperialism, for sex equality has not been achieved in any known culture. As she puts it, “Feminism does not assume that ‘other’ cultures are to be measured against the validity of their own, because feminism does not assume that any culture, including their own, is valid. How could we?” (p. 53). And yet, MacKinnon emphasizes, criticizing cultures from the universal standpoint of women’s equality does not entail some form of essentialism. (The charge of essentialism, she claims, is really an accusation of racism in disguise.)

For MacKinnon, feminism cannot be essentialist because it is based on a rejection of the idea that “woman” is a presocial or biologically determined category. What it asserts, rather, is that despite women’s diversity, “commonalities” remain (p. 53). MacKinnon thus directly repudiates multiculturalists who claim that equality requires group rights that entrench gender hierarchy, a move that places her (in this respect) alongside comprehensive liberal theorists such as Susan Moller Okin and Brian Barry. At the same time, she is emphatic in her criticisms of the conceptual underpinnings of liberal equality: based on the idea that equality requires sameness, she argues, liberal equality cannot deal with the fundamental “difference” of sex. Instead, equality must be understood as the absence of hierarchy, an understanding that necessarily requires making normative judgments about particular social structures and practices. Are Women Human? thus criticizes both sides of the multicultural debate: multiculturalists for failing to challenge sex domination, universalists for failing to challenge their own philosophical premises.

As a whole, the fact that the book is a collection of discrete pieces, many of which were created for specific audiences, is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength if the book is read as a historical record of MacKinnon’s engagement with various actual political and legal struggles. One can imagine MacKinnon’s voice in the courtrooms, parliamentary committees, and conferences where many of the chapters originated. Were any of these audiences able to remain complacent after hearing her speak? Did any object, or defend themselves? Indeed, if the book is to be understood in this way, it would have been illuminating if some of the chapters were accompanied with a note on the responses of their audiences. For example, what did the Swedish parliamentary committee do when told, “The Swedish law of pornography, with respect, is the wrong law. . . . You have a law against sexual violence in pornography, and you are surrounded by sexual violence in pornography. Nothing is done about it” (p. 102)?

Reading the book in this way mitigates the problem that arises when the book is approached, instead, as a unified work: there is a considerable amount of repetition. Viewed as a complete work, the book would have benefited from being reedited as such, with unnecessary repetition removed, to help the reader identify each new argument as it is presented and give each its deserved attention.

These comments notwithstanding, Are Women Human? is a book that deserves to be widely read. It contains important empirical and legal analysis of particular conflicts, most notably what MacKinnon insists must be described as the Serbian genocide of the early 1990s. It develops MacKinnon’s own feminist philosophy, building on the approach developed in her earlier works and demonstrating how feminism should respond to international issues. And it engages directly with contemporary debates about culture, global justice, human rights, international law, and the demands of equality. As such, it challenges those from a variety of disciplines to answer her question: “When will women be human? When?” (p. 43).

—Clare Chambers, University of Cambridge

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Category: Book Review, Issue 21.2

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