Fighting Male Politics Means Fighting the Occupation, Feminist Catharine MacKinnon Says

In Israel, the author of the new book 'Butterfly Politics' talks to Haaretz about her 40 years intervening for social equality through law

Catharine MacKinnon in Jerusalem, May 2008.
Tess Scheflan

For over four decades, feminist lawyer and academic Catharine MacKinnon has been passionately working to end inequality, especially – but certainly not only – for women.

She fights against sexual harassment, prostitution, pornography, snuff films, sex trafficking, child sexual abuse and genocidal rape. And yet, while in Israel to promote her newest book, “Butterfly Politics,” she brings a positive message: Even the smallest actions in a collective context can change whole systems.

A pioneer in legal theory and practice, MacKinnon is a professor of law at the University of Michigan and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, with a BA from Smith College and PhDs in political science and law from Yale.

She spoke to Haaretz at the guest residence of Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim cultural center, which overlooks the Old City walls – and, MacKinnon is quick to note, the separation barrier in the near distance. She speaks carefully and rarely needs to search for a word or phrase as her long, slender fingers punctuate her thoughts.

“Butterfly Politics” is a retrospective of her work. “I have done a lot of theory and a lot of practice what I have not done much of is theorize my practice,” MacKinnon says. “The idea of ‘Butterfly Politics’ is my attempt to reflect on 40 years of intervening for social equality through law.”

The title refers to chaos theory’s butterfly effect, as posited by American theoretical meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz, who famously asked, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

Yes, MacKinnon answers, wryly adding, “And since societies have changed the weather more than law has changed male dominance, there is a certain symmetry in the metaphor. Chaos doesn’t mean lack of pattern – rather, it means that the patterns aren’t linear or immediately clear and that causality is complex, interactive and actually repetitive. To me, that sounds a lot like law and society.”

The butterfly moment refers to a particular intervention or doing that sets off a pattern of change, and it is neither theoretical nor abstract. “All butterfly moments are deeply imprinted by the reality of those whose lives produced them. This is especially true for the legal claim for genocidal rape,” MacKinnon says.

“My Bosnian Muslim and Croat clients from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia who were raped in the Serb-led genocide knew it was genocidal, although the law didn’t. They were determined to fight what was done to them on the terms on which it was done and to create international accountability that named and responded to what happened to them in real life.”

MacKinnon’s contribution in the prosecution of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who in 2016 was found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in collaboration with the Milosevic regime in Serbia, led to the first judicial recognition of the role of rape in genocide under international law.

“The power of political law for women comes less from the law and more from the women and the politics,” MacKinnon says. Indeed, she recalls, this is how she became aware of the need to create political change through law.

Coercion and a lack of real choice

A young student at Yale at the height of the feminist movement on college campuses, she participated in consciousness-raising groups. Listening to women’s stories, she became aware of how prevalent sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace really were – and how the law was completely disconnected from women’s lived experiences.

“The law permits sexual predation by dominant groups on subordinate groups. These laws are justified by a political theory that justifies the rule of rulers over the ruled and calls that consent – which I don’t remember ever having given. Consent means acquiescence, compliance, being rolled by power under circumstances of coercion and lack of real choice,” MacKinnon says.

“It is intrinsically unequal. You can’t consent to inequality. If you get paid half of what others are paid for the same work, and you accept your half pay, that doesn’t make it equal. In a context of coercion by inequality, vulnerability produces acquiescence but it has nothing to do with what a person actually wants.”

Many of her ideas are now at the foundation of legal and political discourse. But her 40-year career has not been easy. She has often been attacked as too strident, too extreme, too feminist, too anti-male or too radical. When she argued against pornography, demanding that it be viewed as a violation of rights and abuse, even some feminists argued that her ideas limited free speech and were dangerously close to conservatism.

In her review of her work, butterfly moments have led to positive change. And yet, despite the changes, Donald Trump was elected president. And women voted for him.

MacKinnon sighs. “Women voting for Trump show, among other things, that misogyny is not confined to men. A majority of white women voted for their class and racial privileges. African-American women overwhelmingly did not vote for him – in the high-90 percentile,” she says.

“I think the fact that his appeal was racist and that he is an admitted sexual predator helped him among some groups of white men who feel challenged by women’s equality and want to be ‘men’ again – that is, dominant and aggressive.”

MacKinnon attributes Trump’s election to authoritarianism. “Trump pushes the simplest buttons to get the simplest reactions,” she says. “The mobilizing appeal that he uses comes out of familiar authoritarian playbooks – blame the other people, push on the economic- and security-panic side.”

I ask her if the authoritarian right might be having its own butterfly moments.

“I don’t think Trump was aware of the exact historical resonances of his authoritarianism, although they are precise. I believe Bannon is,” she says, referring to the White House chief strategist. “This has been building for a long time. Butterfly moments aren’t limited to my politics.”

MacKinnon has visited Israel numerous times, often to lecture at universities and conduct workshops with students. “People in my audiences here ask brilliant questions. It is a particular relief to come from the United States and the United Kingdom,” she says.

“Here, people can think collectively and structurally. In the U.S., all of the training, theory and validation by power rewards is on the level of thinking individually. Here, people understand structural issues, collective problems. They know how to go from a structural analysis to the individual or dyadic analysis – which is essential, for instance, in defining a crime like rape on an inequality ground.”

Less hope in Israel than before

But MacKinnon senses a change from previous visits. “There is pain and the tensions have always been on the surface – on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side,” she says. “There’s less denial here of the unacceptability of things than anywhere in the world. The determination, the same sense that this cannot go on, is the same, but there is less hope.”

Many Israelis, MacKinnon says, know they must simultaneously fight the occupation, the subjugation of some men by other men, and the subjection of women by men, because they are connected. “The subordination of some men by other men is part of the masculinist project – male politics, meaning politics – and then when men subordinate women in their communities on both sides, the occupation makes redress almost impossible. That’s what the occupation does,” she says.

“It’s the same conversation, approached from different angles – except that those who talk about the occupation without talking about male dominance aren’t paying attention to the way the male dominance perpetuates the occupation, providing a strong interest and incentive to continue it. Not to mention that they are ignoring those Israeli men of all communities who don’t think weaponized masculinity is the world’s greatest gift, who dissent from its violent forms and who want an equal world.”

She knows that Israel’s Council for Higher Education recently voted to broaden the definition of who is eligible to apply for segregated studies at the country’s universities. She responds that the issue of sex segregation for students can be complex.

“I’m not saying that the only way to become human is to be around the other sex, and I think there can be an empowering aspect to being with women; for example, women’s colleges in the U.S.," she says, and then adds "but that men can’t learn from women, yet women can learn from men? That is an appalling limit on women’s employment opportunities and on men’s education. Women have a lot to say and men and women should hear them.”

In her work for and with women, MacKinnon faces the most horrible crimes against women imaginable. How does she cope, how does she remain optimistic?

“I don’t do optimism,” she answers quickly. “I do determination. People share their trauma and pain with me, thinking that it will matter somehow . I feel honored, and I feel chosen in a way. My part in the project is to be open and to actually feel what they are saying, even with tears streaming down my face. It is a project of being accountable to who they think I am, of learning and becoming through their telling.”

Is this who she thought she would become four decades ago at Yale?

“I don’t think that way. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest. My father was a lawyer; maybe we were privileged compared to others there was not a lot of money most of the time, but money was not what we valued. Nor was intelligence, actually,” she says.

“My father valued competence and craft. He took me to see how our neighbor made sausages, praising the exact right way to do things. I take a much broader view in my work, with theory and analysis or the larger picture. But yes, competence and craft matter.”

The idea of butterfly politics, she says, inspires interventions, even tiny ones. “In isolation, butterflies are delicate and fragile. On its life journey, a butterfly can be collected and categorized in a box. It can die for lack of nutrition. It can be smashed against a windshield. But still we rise everywhere.

“So I say: Equality seekers, spread your wings. You’re stronger than you know. And butterflies – sometimes even one – cannot be stopped.”