Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Monday, September 30, 2013

Brief Documentary on Catharine MacKinnon

available here.  (she grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere?  Who knew?)  There is so much of what she says that I still find immensely compelling and of political significance.  At the same time, I wonder how much of her ideas are still relevant for my students' generation and my daughters'.

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I cannot imagine why it would not still be relevant. Sexual harassment has far from disappeared. Rape is still a huge problem around the world. We still have vastly different attitudes towards men's and women's sexual behavior ("slut-shaming"). Phenomenon of revenge porn, cyber-bullying, etc. is disproportionately directed at girls and LGBT teens. Domestic violence against women has far from disappeared. Porn is bigger than ever and while undoubtedly some women find it empowering to perform in, my suspicion is that the vast majority go into this out of economic desperation and suffer the same sort of fate that Linda Marciano (aka Linda Lovelace) and a good deal of the sex trafficking that goes on is to feed this trade. Many Republicans are trying to push back women's rights to the autonomy over their bodies. Given the worldwide status of women and women's rights, MacKinnon's question, "Are Women Human?" (and thus should they enjoy basic human rights) is as relevant as ever. So I am curious about what aspect of her work do you think might not be relevant to this generation?

Posted by: Tamara Piety | Sep 30, 2013 8:05:13 AM

Those are really good points, and I don’t find myself contesting them in any general way. I still find CM’s arguments to be relevant (indeed, “compelling,” as stated in the post), but I was wondering how deeply relevant they were for the generation of my students. They, the students, don’t really speak in the diction of submission and dominance that CM is known for; she had, as you know, asserted systematically that those two conditions (submission and dominance) map on to the categories of female and male, respectively. Gender was a reflection of power. And, for her, there was pretty much no flinching from that worldview. Whether her thesis is useful or not as a heuristic isn’t my point, of course, but rather, whether my students (or people around my students' age) find it compelling, or relevant.

And here, I’m not really sure. They seem to have a more fluid understanding of gender identities (again, no claim is being pressed about whether this is good or bad); their view is that men can sometimes be subject to submission by women. They also seem to view female sexuality as a form of empowerment to be wielded cunningly (and sometimes, with intimidation) to get things that they want, including power, rather than simply a sorry reflection of their oppression by men. Less provocatively, perhaps, some women students (both in my school, and some others where I presented papers) seem to think that feminism and the embrace of traditional gender roles of masculinity and femininity for men and women are a good thing.

So, I wondered (a more tentative verb than “questioned”) if the younger generation of students thought differently about gender in a way that found CM’s views to be less relevant. To that end, here is a related, and perhaps potentially relevant (an overused word, by now) post that I made on this blog:

Let me know what you think. . . ..

Posted by: John Kang | Sep 30, 2013 9:11:25 AM

You seem to be using "relevant" in a somewhat curious way to mean "accepted" or "popular." I am not sure CM's analysis was ever "relevant" in that way in that even when she first wrote, and continuing throughout to the present moment, many people disputed or resisted the identification of dominance and influence of power. There is nothing particularly modern about the notion that "female sexuality" is "a form of empowerment to be wielded cunningly (and sometimes, with intimidation) to get things that they want, including power, rather than simply a sorry reflection of their oppression by men. " That is a construction of rather longstanding isn't it? The phenomenon you describe in Khan's book (which I haven't read but looks interesting) doesn't seem particularly remarkable or unusual in any respect except that girls are students of St. Paul's and I assume that most of these elite institutions used to be all male. (Correct me if I am wrong). Then as now women were encouraged to believe their physical appearance and beauty was both the source of their primary worth and the only source of power. the idea of the femme fatale, the conniving woman, the gold-digger, etc. were all well-established tropes and are not inconsistent with CM's analysis. If nothing changes but the admission of women into traditionally male institutions, while much of the rest of the society remains the same (women are still identified by the accomplishments of the men they marry, by their sexual availability or not, taught to commodify their sexuality, etc.) it does not seem surprising that girls at St. Paul's might behave the way you describe in your post that Khan describes them as behaving (and I am taking your word for it). And it doesn't seem to in any way make CM's analysis less relevant. Indeed, I think it might underscore it. Each generation (sadly) seems to have to learn the same (or similar) lessons anew. I watch some of my female students still subject to the pressures of a system in which men dictate their worth on the basis of how they look, whether they are married, what kind of mother they are, whether they are a mother at all, and I see their opportunities to express themselves or to exercise power outside of these realms marginalized as a consequence and I feel it is hard to think that a whole lot has changed. When CM's work first appeared it did not speak to everyone's experience; many people resisted or disputed her analysis. It spoke to me and I thought it was descriptively accurate. Then, as now, I think some readers will find it congenial, truthful, accurate, etc. and some will not. But I understood you to be using the word "relevant" to describe something other than its popularity and to be suggesting that circumstances had changed sufficiently that CM's analysis no longer applied. Yet the examples you offer could have been offered in 1950, 1970, 1980 or today. I think one thing that *has* changed is the mainstreaming of a porn aesthetic and an intensification of that focus on appearance and the notion of marriage or sex performance as a "career" or as a means to a livelihood. In a sense, the commodification of sex and marriage which was always there but disapproved of has been made respectable but this transformation hasn't changed much of the power dynamics. In a way it has come out from the cover of a taken for granted social practice, an instantiation of some biological, moral or logical imperative, to somehow an option that is "freely chosen." I question how "free" it is when choices are still so freighted with undesirable social consequences, in many case still backed up by the threat of force which lies in the background of gender relations just like force lies in the background of law. But I suspect this may all be too complicated for a blog length discussion and I may oversimplify; but my reaction was to what it sounded like the suggestion that societal conditions had changed enough to render the analysis irrelevant. I don't think they have.

Posted by: Tamara Piety | Sep 30, 2013 11:13:04 AM

This post on Crooked Timber makes some points that I think are relevant to this exchange.

Posted by: Tamara Piety | Sep 30, 2013 11:55:26 AM

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