It's always nice when a book review constitutes a sort of "meeting of the minds," and Martha Nussbaum's review of Catharine MacKinnon's Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues in the latest issue of The Nation surely qualifies. After a quick run-down of MacKinnon's myriad achievements in both legal theory and legal activism, Nussbaum pronounces Are Women Human? "a sparking book, perhaps her finest." This means a lot, considering both who it's coming from and the fact that MacKinnon has written around twelve books, many of which are considered paragons of legal scholarship (indeed, according to Nussbaum, MacKinnon's Sexual Harassment of Working Women is "widely agreed" to be "one of the most influential books by a legal academic, in terms of its actual influence on the law").
Are Women Human? might at first seem an odd title for book like this. Women are, after all, by definition "human." But framing the question like this helps to elucidate one of MacKinnon's central themes. Nussbaum explains:
Despite the prevalence of these crimes [rape, domestic abuse, etc], they have not been well addressed under international human rights law--if, indeed, they have been addressed at all. Typically, there has been what MacKinnon calls a "double-edged denial": The abuse is considered either too extraordinary to be believed or too ordinary to constitute a major human rights violation. Or, as MacKinnon says, "If it's happening, it's not so bad, and if it's really bad, it isn't happening." Until recently, abuses like rape and sexual torture lacked good human rights standards because human rights norms were typically devised by men thinking about men's lives. In other words, "If men don't need it, women don't get it." What this lack of recognition has meant is that women have not yet become fully human in the legal and political sense, bearers of equal, enforceable human rights.
In the realm that MacKinnon deals with, then, it is fair to say that women at this point remain something less than "human."
How can we as a society rectify these injustices? The essays in Are Women Human? show how MacKinnon has been in the forefront of the movement to do just this. As Nussbaum points out: "MacKinnon herself has played a moving role in these developments. Because she is so well known as a feminist thinker, it is easy to forget that MacKinnon is also a lawyer, and a very shrewd one." In a case called Kadic v. Karazdic, MacKinnon's innovative legal strategy (employing a little-known American statue known as the Alien Tort Claims Act) secured punitive and compensatory damages totaling $745 million for a group of Bosnian women raped during the early-90s conflict with the Serbs.
True scholar that she is, Nussbaum has a few tactical bones to pick with MacKinnon, especially with regard to whether it's worthwhile to pursue the sorts of claims solely in the international realm as opposed to working within the framework of the modern nation-state, an institution in which Nussbaum maintains a good deal of faith:
None of this, however, adds up to saying that the state is not a crucially important place for sex equality to be enacted and realized. MacKinnon sometimes comes quite close to saying that the modern state is a sexist relic that has had its day. Surely, however, the state is the largest unit we know of so far that is decently accountable to people's voices, and thus it is bound to be of critical importance for women seeking to make their voices heard. I think there is also a moral argument for the state: It is a unit that expresses the human choice to live together under laws of one's own choosing. Once again, it is the largest unit we yet know that expresses this fundamental human aspiration.
If you're the type of person who believes what our Constitution says about "equal protection under the law," then you can't afford to ignore the work of someone like MacKinnon, who is at the forefront of the ongoing fight to make those words a reality. Whether you agree with her interpretations or not, she is a figure to be reckoned with, someone who truly "walks the walk." Are Women Human? is perhaps the best distillation yet of her thinking on these issues, written with force and clarity. As Nussbaum says: "This book is indeed fierce, unrelenting in its naming of abuse and hypocrisy. In a world where women pervasively suffer violence, however, it takes the fierceness of good theory to move us a little closer to peace."