‘E quality seekers, spread your wings. You’re stronger than you think.’ With these inspiring words, Catharine Mackinnon introduces her new collection of speeches and other writings.
Spanning some 40 years of legal pioneering and activism, the collection is grouped under five headings: Change, Law, Culture, Academy and Toward an Equal Future.
The book’s themes – rape, sexual harassment, prostitution, genocide, pornography and trafficking – will be familiar to readers of Mackinnon’s previous work. But what feels most fresh and relevant in this collection is the articulation of a more radical approach to equality law and, indeed, to the practice of law itself.
As for the book’s title, Mackinnon invokes the notion of the ‘butterfly effect’ coined in 1972 by Edward Lorenz – the butterfly which, by flapping its wings in Brazil, sets off a tornado in Texas. The idea, though interesting, is never fully explored. A reimagining of politics in the era of Trump and Brexit this is not.
The real strength of this collection lies instead in the powerful advocacy of a writer who decided to go to law school ‘because I did not believe male lawyers I watched enjoying their godlike position of saying “no, that’s impossible” to most things women wanted law to do’. Mackinnon describes how law’s obsession with the technical and mechanical can overlook the necessary moral and spiritual dimension. But, she tells us, ‘you don’t have to be that kind of lawyer’. As lawyers, we should be true to our commitments and to our communities, Mackinnon argues.
Author: Catharine Mackinnon
Throughout her career, Mackinnon has challenged and dissected accepted concepts of formal and substantive equality, highlighting (in a talk entitled ‘Law’s Power’) ‘the use of neutrality as a norm and the way it hides its standards, obscures its reference point, and does not produce fairness’.
An approach to equality that can go either way, which lacks substantive content (as does much of the Equality Act in this country), will support existing arrangements, namely the status quo that social power has constructed. ‘When you feel like you’re crawling on your knees, begging for the equality you are supposed to be guaranteed already, this is why,’ she writes.
In words from 1990, Mackinnon’s views have resonance in the debate about Supreme Court appointments in this country as recently as 2015: ‘The legal… norms seem designed to encourage putting off the real thing: the big issue, the major change. We get told change is gradual, small, slow. But many women’s problems can be solved only by big changes… So do it now. Do it big. Start big.’
Law, Mackinnon argues, means community, reality, vindication, hope and the restoration of ‘some of the humanity [that] victimisation took away’.
This powerful message should inspire feminist legal practitioners to spread their wings and reach for the sky.
Emma Dixon is a barrister at Blackstone Chambers