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Are Women Human?Review - Are Women Human?
And Other International Dialogues
by Catharine A. MacKinnon
Belknap Press, 2006
Review by Tatiana Patrone, Ph.D.
Aug 22nd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 34)

In her most recent collection of speeches, articles, and essays, Catharine MacKinnon addresses the question: Are women human? Put less ambiguously, the question is: Do national and international laws protect women's human rights? The answer that MacKinnon argues for is 'No'. According to her, ''no state effectively guarantees women's human rights within its borders'' (148) and ''international law still fails to grasp the reality that [men] are dominating [women] in often violent ways all of the time'' (266). Women's human rights, MacKinnon believes, have been ''systemically and systematically'' violated for millennia, i.e., women's human rights have been violated both in a ''socially patterned'' and ''intentionally organized'' ways (29). MacKinnon’s main concern in Are Women Human? is twofold: first, it is to provide evidence supporting the claim that both legally and socially women have been treated as less than human in that the protection of their human rights has been denied to them. Second, MacKinnon aims to diagnose why this has been the case and what ought to be done, both domestically and internationally, in order to improve women's legal status and social condition.

The task of providing the evidential support for the claim that women's human rights are violated requires a two-pronged approach. Numerous empirical facts concerning harms inflicted upon women all over the world would not suffice for supporting this claim. Thus, in addition to citing such facts, MacKinnon provides an interpretation of them. That is, she argues that rape in general and rape as genocide, sexual abuse, pornography, prostitution, etc. indeed ought to be regarded as violations of women's human rights, and insofar as these harms are not regarded as such violations, what the law does is use a ''simple double standard'' (21) in its protection of men vs. its (lack of) protection of women. In fact, one of the leitmotifs of Are Women Human? is MacKinnon's argument for the claim that philosophers traditionally have been unable to provide the right interpretation of women's real condition. What Western philosophy has been interested in, MacKinnon points out, is ''general and abstract thought'', thought that is ''free from substantive social content'' (46). Feminism (among some other modern philosophical movements), contrary to this tradition, pays close attention to the social reality (of women) and aims to provide a theory that does justice to this reality. As MacKinnon herself puts it, women's social condition is ''a specific reality that, collectively conscious, calls for a new way of thinking about knowing'' (45). That is, taking social reality seriously leads feminist thinkers to adjust 'knowledge' to 'reality', and theory to life.

But what is the 'social reality' that we must consider (according to MacKinnon) in order to grasp the force of this argument? MacKinnon invites us to reflect on the following examples. ''The number of people who died on September 11th, from 2800 to 3000, is almost identical to the number of women who die at the hands of men every year in just one country, the same one in which September 11th happened'' (261). Or, ''when the photographs of American soldiers sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison surfaced, the fact that identical acts are routinely committed against women in pornography'' was seldom brought up (273). What emerges from these comparisons is the following: while September 11th and Abu Ghraib get interpreted as politically significant events that violate human rights, women's condition (e.g., domestic abuse and murder, prostitution and pornography) is seen as neither. Instead, '' violence against women is [considered] to be [the] non-state, culturally specific, expressive acts of bad apple individuals'' (269). As it is, this violence has no political significance, warrants no state acts (cf. the reaction to September 11th in particular), and in fact is ''on no public agenda -- journalistic or legislative, domestic or international'' (273).

The problem of recognizing harms against women as violations of women's human rights, MacKinnon argues, is based on the fact that the issue is obscured in two ways at once: ''what happens to women is either too particular to be universal or too universal to be particular'' (142). In the first case (of being ''too particular to be universal''), the violation of women's rights (such as sexual abuse or rape) is considered to be a set of private criminal acts of men against women, acts that have no political significance and that do not warrant being addressed by international law (to make the contrast clearer, compare acts done by the Germans to the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s: these have not been considered to be merely the criminal acts of some -- albeit many -- private German citizens against private Jewish persons.) Thus, e.g., sexual abuse, rape, and prostitution are considered to be ''too particular'' to constitute violations of women's human rights. But the issue of women's rights is obscured in yet another way: violations of women's rights are considered to be ''too universal to be particular''. That is, when women are violated like men (e.g., when women are raped, murdered, or executed at death-camps), the atrocities against them ''are not marked in the history as violations of women's human rights'' (180). These, we say, are crimes against humanity, i.e., women and men alike. As a social group, women, therefore, slip through the legal grid and do not have their rights protected as members of this social group.

The fact that the violations of women's human rights are not on our ''legislative (domestic or international)'' agenda, MacKinnon argues, is reflected, for instance, in the fact that that it is only states that are taken to violate or protect human rights. As a result, the violations of women's rights are typically not recognized as cases of violations of human rights at all; the ''systemic and systematic'' violations such as rape, domestic abuse, pornography, etc. are regarded legally not as state oppression of women but as private acts addressed by the criminal court domestically and not at all internationally. However, what sets the domestic and international legal agenda, MacKinnon points out, is ''male reality'': ''the violations of human rights of men better fit the paradigm of human rights violations because that paradigm has been based on the experience of men'' (147). That is, historically, the relevant ''experience of men'' has been the oppression of men by the government (e.g., slavery and segregation) and not the oppression of women by men. As the result, ''when men use their liberties socially to deprive women of theirs,'' MacKinnon says, ''it does not look like a human rights violation'' (147).

More generally, the challenge of setting the legal, political, and social agenda in any society is to provide a correct interpretation of social reality, its features and its problems. Social reality, feminism argues, is inevitably interpreted as male reality, i.e., as a framework of interactions and relations between men. ''Reality is a social status'', MacKinnon says, and as long as it is men who have the social status of power, what is considered to be 'social reality' reflects the male perspective only. What, on the other hand, gets ignored is the perspective and the status of the powerless in the society: their conditions and problems are seen as merely private and in no need of being addressed publicly (or politically). What gets ignored, furthermore, is that society (every society in history) is a society with a rigid hierarchy, in which women are always the lower stratum while men are the higher one.

One of the philosophical theories at fault here and a theory that Are Women Human? challenges on several occasions is Aristotle's account of equality. This account, MacKinnon claims, misinterprets social reality and leads us to unjust treatment of the underprivileged social groups. It is this conception of equality that obscures the fact that the structure of social reality is fundamentally hierarchical together with the normative implications of this fact -- the call to move toward a society that is not based on the subordination of any one group to another. Following Aristotle, we still largely take equality to be about treating likes alike and unlikes unlike. This principle aims to bring the normative aims of justice closer to empirical reality: normative categories, according to this principle, must ''carve the social world at a natural joint'' (72). This approach to equality and justice results in the following. Insofar as women and men are considered to be 'likes', they are treated alike both legally and socially. This means that legally and socially some women's rights are not considered specifically women's rights at all, which, as MacKinnon argued earlier, often makes women's social status ''too universal to be particular''. But, insofar as men and women are considered to be 'unlikes' -- most of the harms done to women being of a sexual in nature -- women seem to deserve a different treatment. More specifically, MacKinnon argues, this principle translates into the following: ''if men don't need it, women don't get it'' (26). For instance, since men (as a social group) do not need effective laws against pornography, rape, prostitution, etc., women do not get such laws either. Naturally, this claim ought not to be interpreted crudely. What MacKinnon argues, rather, is that our (or any) legal paradigm do not recognize pornography, rape, and prostitution as violations of human rights since pornography, rape, and prostitution are considered to be (legally and socially speaking) 'special cases' that are based on the difference between men and women. What this approach equally fails to recognize is that instead of focusing on 'same' and 'different' when it comes to men and women, we ought to focus on the hierarchical structure of society, a structure that has been based on the oppression of one social group by the other.

Are Women Human? is bound to challenge those who are interested in law or philosophy. Due to the scope and the general purpose of MacKinnon's project, some of her speeches, essays, and articles contain controversial claims that are left undefended (e.g., she claims that all pornography and prostitution are forced and are due to the ''lack of choices'' that women have (248)). The challenge of the book, however, lies elsewhere. The question that Are Women Human? encourages us to ask is whether the domestic and international legal standards applied to crimes against women are consistent with our commitment to defending human rights in general. That is, whether our legal, social, and philosophical theories are adequate to reality as women experience it. The evidence that MacKinnon carefully collects and interprets strongly suggests a negative answer to questions such as these. Whether we agree or not with her diagnosis of the problem and with her proposed solutions to it, Are Women Human? confronts us with the task of providing a diagnosis and a solution to the problems in our legal and social approach to women's rights.

 

2006 Tatiana Patrone

 

Tatiana Patrone will take a position this fall as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Montclair State University, New Jersey.


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