Donia Human Rights Center hosts Catharine A. MacKinnon lecture on women’s rights

Thursday, April 11, 2019 - 8:09pm

Law professor Catharine MacKinnon speaks about the law and politics of sexual harassment in light of the #MeToo movement during a lecture in the Rackham Amphitheatre Thursday.

Law professor Catharine MacKinnon speaks about the law and politics of sexual harassment in light of the #MeToo movement during a lecture in the Rackham Amphitheatre Thursday. Buy this photo
Hannah Siegel/Daily

Thursday afternoon, more than 300 people attended Law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon’s lecture titled “Sexual Harassment: The Law, the Politics and the Movement.” The lecture focused on feminist topics such as the recent #MeToo cultural movement and the potential shift of women’s roles in society. MacKinnon gears much of her work around issues of sex equality, especially in regards to international and domestic law.

In addition to the lecture, MacKinnon also promoted her new book, titled “Butterfly Politics: Changing the World for Women,” which discusses the shifts in social roles toward female empowerment prompted by the years of women’s protests and actions that culminated into the #MeToo movement.

LSA freshman Bethany Ruiz said she read one of MacKinnon’s texts in her Women’s Studies class, and so her professor encouraged her class to hear MacKinnon speak firsthand.  

“Instead of going to my normal women’s studies lecture, our professor is having us come here,” Ruiz said. “We read a piece by MacKinnon called ‘Privacy v. Equality: Beyond Roe v. Wade’ and she thought it would be a cool experience to come and see her (MacKinnon).”

Lisa Young Larance, graduate student instructor in the Women’s Studies Department and doctoral candidate in the joint Social Work and Sociology program, also attended the event and expressed her respect for MacKinnon’s beliefs.

“I admire Professor Catharine MacKinnon for the position she has had and taken in framing our understanding of gender and the law, whether or not people continue to agree with her decisions on issues,” Larance said.

MacKinnon spoke on the political, cultural and legislative changes resulting from women discussing their experiences with sexual abuse in society. In light of the wider issues surrounding the social media #MeToo movement, MacKinnon highlighted how the legal definition of “sexual harassment” as a human rights violation allowed for the movement to take place.

“This was first a legal breakthrough, really,” said MacKinnon. “The legal breakthrough that defines ‘sexual harassment’ as sex discrimination, as a human rights violation, and it’s my view that this was a crucial precondition to the #MeToo cultural transformation, despite the inadequacies of law that that movement has carefully highlighted.”

She defined this incoming structural change as a “butterfly effect.” She explained many factors have set off other events in an unstable environment, which have come together to excite an immense cultural shift.

“Inspired by a butterfly in Brazil, the title models how extremely small, simple actions when properly targeted under the right conditions, particularly under unstable conditions, can come to have highly complex and large effects,” said MacKinnon. “Butterfly politics in my adaptation of this concept comes to transformation in the gender system.”

MacKinnon then highlighted the important role of journalists in supporting women who communicated their frustration, elevating their issues to national prominence.

“Journalists are ... persistently tracking down supporting evidence of the women’s accounts, reporting survivor’s own compelling voices, often accompanied by dignified and empowering visuals … Reporters at long last have discovered that sexual abuse is a story, with legs even, and they have refused to let the story die or the voices telling it,” MacKinnon said.

She ended by describing that the overall goal of this movement was a peaceful revolution and reminded the audience they were on the right track toward change.

“Imagine a revolution without violence against domination and aggression," MacKinnon said. "Envision a moment of truth and a movement of transformation for the sexually violated toward a more equal, therefore more peaceful and just, world. It is happening all around us. Right now.”

LSA sophomore Elijah Baylark told The Daily after the lecture that it made him reflect on his family, which is mostly made up of women, and echoed his respect toward the women seeking empowerment.

“For me, personally, growing up with women, I think it is really powerful,” said Baylark. “Like men who have daughters, like me — I have a niece and I have two sisters — and to actually see women rising up to the occasion and standing up for what they believe in shows us that they are just as capable as their counterparts in males.”