When some people hear the words “radical feminism” it’s like a grey static fuzz starts humming in their ears from that point on. To be fair, the same can be said for others when they hear the words “men’s rights activist”. Extreme stand points, opinions and passions can be complicated because they are, by their very nature, divisive. They can be controversial and exclusionary to those who are not convinced or are still deciding. I have really enjoyed learning about the extremely positive and fabulous legal contributions and social influence that Catharine MacKinnon has had in her long standing career. Let the fuzz lift if it’s there and let me share with you some incredible things MacKinnon has achieved.
You can see MacKinnon’s professional biography here. Her influence is wide, but one of the key areas she has spent her energy in is that of sexual abuse and inequality. A few snapshots from her life to get started:
- MacKinnon was born in 1946 in Minneapolis
- She graduated university in 1969, her JD in 1977 and a doctorate in political science in 1987
- She was part of creating the women’s liberation movement
- In 1986 she achieved recognition by the Supreme Court that sexual harassment equated to sex discrimination
- She has been highly critical of the sex industry and the way it dominates and controls women
- Her work is influential in gaining traction for sex violations, rape and trafficking to be seen has human rights violations
- See further here.
It is humbling to see how much influence one woman has had. She is a sheer force of academic production. She is an incredibly hard working and prominent figure who has actively changed the experience of millions of women through her efforts.
There are academic critiques and articles and conversations that you can tune in on if you’d like to read to pros and cons to MacKinnon’s contributions from people far more qualified than I. There is incredible controversy in academic and personal opinion around the sex industry in particular, with many people arguing if framed correctly it is an empowering and supportive line of work for women to dominate and excel. I see merit in both lines of thought and what I advocate is for personal choice and empowerment as facilitated by safe work places and professional support. I do not judge or hold opinion against people engaged in pornography or sex work, and at the same time I can understand the fears and worries those looking from the outside in hold for those people and their well being. It’s complicated, it what I’m trying to say.
All of that aside, when I’ve been reading about her my primary wonder is this: without a controversial voice such as her own, would we have moved forward in the ways that we have? Would laws have changed in America identifying sexual harassment as a form of discrimination as recognised in a court of law and codified in legislation? In her more recent work, would rape have been conceded to as a form of genocide?
There’s no way to truly answer those questions. The reality is that she was there. She did put in those hundreds of hours, represent all of the people she has, argued across all of the platforms she could stand on, and has generated the change that she has through tireless energy and efforts. Who can begrudge a person’s tenacity and personal fight like that? It is healthy and good if you do not agree with 100% of everything she has ever written. No matter where you stand on feminism, on women’s rights, on relevant legal arguments, I think it can be seen that she is at her core an advocate and a powerful agitator in a country and an industry that will only change with extreme advocacy and agitation.
I think the conversation around the merits of a controversial voice is really interesting. When you look at leaps of progress in history, you often see figures who, at the time, were considered to be extremely controversial. They sometimes still are. But we respect the work and energy they demonstrated to move our history forward. I have always been fascinated reading about people who I do not agree with. I like talking to people with different views to me to understand their perspective on things. I like reading books about people who have spent hours upon hours talking to individuals with extreme views and trying to work backwards around how those ideas came to make sense to them. I think by listening to various voices you can consider where your own middle ground is or confirm your original stance.
In the world we are currently in, where we circle around our own opinions, we have news served up to us by algorithms that confirm our inherent bias and follow people without qualifications, absorbing their advice like science. I worry that we are not giving enough time to stretching our brains and our views. Life is far busier than it has ever been, and yet we are held static in our world views and biases. In that regard, I really don’t think we are as advanced as we think we are in our education and beliefs. It’s easy to say “but what can I do?” We are all emotionally fatigued and stressed, and I agree that we probably can’t all be Catharine MacKinnons… we’d run out of paper to publish all the books on that we would collectively write!
But we can seek alternative opinion. We can let interesting and unique standpoints wash over us and let our own minds identify where we hold that piece of information in our own reality. It’s OK to get angry or feel conflicted by opinon – that, in my experience, is how I define myself and advance my own rhetoric.
“Women tend to be economically valued according to men’s perceptions of their potential to be sexually harassed,” MacKinnon argues. “They are, in effect, required to ‘ask for it.’”Source
Is it any wonder with grabs like the one above that MacKinnon is a divisive figure? The difference between her and so many others is that she has done away with the nicety of feminine fawning traits. She doesn’t excuse her words, she places them up front, bold, in capital letters.
One thing that I find inherently upsetting is that often it takes atrocious acts for truths to be acknowledged. When I read the advancement points MacKinnon has had on legal matters, that has happened after women have been assaulted, raped, dredged through society’s mud one too many times to be ignored. All too often this is how it is. It’s not until we see documented video of famine that we believe the rumours and insights that a government is denying its people food. It’s not until we see the black eye that we believe a husband is abusing his wife. Millions and millions of micro abuses happen every day, and women such as MacKinnon are trying to remedy these with bold legal amendments and professional nuance. She is a threatening figure and I think the world is better for her.
I often think to myself that if the lights went out for me tomorrow I would be entirely comfortable and happy with the legacy I left behind. That doesn’t mean I lay down today and stop my progress. I can let the fantastic energy of women like MacKinnon to keep pushing me forward. To keep me feeling inspired to read, to write, to think, to communicate, to support, to unite, to create. I don’t need to obliterate people or their opinions from my newsfeed or mind because I don’t 100% agree with them. I can decide for myself what I take away from each person and theory I encounter, and build my own world view around it.