Nussbaum Reads MacKinnon

Martha Nussbaum’s review of Catherine MacKinnon’s Are Women Human? ties in well with Danny Postel’s interview of Fred Halliday. Both put rights at the center – and in fact, as I noted in ‘Fred Halliday Rocks,’ Halliday cites Nussbaum (and Sen) on the subject. I would so much rather read Sen or Nussbaum or Appiah than Andrew Murray or Faisal Bodi or Inayat Bunglawala.

Inequality on the basis of sex is a pervasive reality of women’s lives all over the world. So is sex-related violence…Despite the prevalence of these crimes, they have not been well addressed under international human rights law…Until recently, abuses like rape and sexual torture lacked good human rights standards because human rights norms were typically devised by men thinking about men’s lives. In other words, “If men don’t need it, women don’t get it.” What this lack of recognition has meant is that women have not yet become fully human in the legal and political sense, bearers of equal, enforceable human rights…”Women’s resistance to their status and treatment” is now “the cutting edge of change in international human rights.”

Good. Let us know if we can help in some way.

MacKinnon’s central theme, repeatedly and convincingly mined, is the hypocrisy of the international system when it faces up to some crimes against humanity but fails to confront similar harms when they happen to women, often on a daily basis.

Violence in prison cells in Chile (or Guantanamo, as Nussbaum doesn’t say) is recognized as torture, but violence in kitchens in Nebraska is not.

As in her prior work, MacKinnon is caustic about the damage done by the traditional liberal distinction between a “public sphere” and a “private sphere,” a distinction that insulates marital rape and domestic violence from public view and makes people think it isn’t political. “Why isn’t this political?… The fact that you may know your assailant does not mean that your membership in a group chosen for violation is irrelevant to your abuse. It is still systematic and group-based.

Domestic violence including forced marriage, systematic subordination of females, systematically asymmetrical allocation of resources between males and females, genital mutilation.

Throughout the book MacKinnon reasserts the conception of equality that has been, so far, her most influential contribution to legal thought. Similarity of treatment, she has argued throughout her work, is not sufficient for the true “equal protection” of the laws. Mere formal equality often masks, or even reinforces, underlying inequalities. We need to think, instead, of the idea of freedom from hierarchy, from domination and subordination.

I’ve become somewhat obsessed with domination and subordination in recent years, as you may have noticed. Maybe it’s partly from reading Nussbaum, I don’t know. But I think it’s mostly from learning about women and girls who are indeed very thoroughly and systematically dominated and subordinated. I take it personally.

And there’s even a bonus:

Because feminist theory, in her understanding, is committed to reality, MacKinnon is deeply troubled by some of the excesses of academic postmodernism. One of the gems in the collection is an essay called “Postmodernism and Human Rights,” which ought to be required reading for all undergraduates and graduate students in the humanities.

Along with – oh you know.

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