source - -

Interview with Catharine A. MacKinnon : « They haven’t crushed me yet. »

21 septembre 2005

par Catherine Albertini et Emily Blake

« That they haven’t crushed me yet. I somehow just don’t seem to go away or shut up, no matter what they do ». (Catharine A. MacKinnon)

Catharine A. MacKinnon is one of the leading figures of American feminism. A PhD in law and in political science, a lawyer before the U.S. Supreme court, a theorist, a militant, in all these qualities she is engaged in the struggle for human rights and gender equality. She teaches in the law faculties of the universities of Michigan and Chicago, after having taught at Yale, Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Osgoode Hall (Toronto) and Bâle University (Switzerland). For the past 25 years, Catharine A. MacKinnon has been a major influence on the evolution of the law:acknowledgement by the U.S. Supreme court, in 1986, of sexual harassment as gender discrimination, and later of pornography and prostitution as forms of violence against women. She participates in the formulation of human rights policies for women both in NGO’s and in government agencies, in the USA and throughout the world. She has acted before the International Criminal Tribunal for Ex-Yugoslavia, where she also sat as a judge, as pro bono attorney for women and children victims of sexual atrocities committed by Serbs. Two years ago, I had requested Catharine A. MacKinnon’s permission to have her fundamental work, "Feminism Unmodified" translated into French. Thanks to Antoinette Fouque and Éditions des femmes, the French version is now available under the title : "Le féminisme irréductible". On July 3rd 2005, while she was in Paris giving a series of lectures in Nanterre, Catharine A. MacKinnon generously accepted to answer our questions. This interview was made by Catherine Albertini and Emily Blake.

French version.


Catherine Albertini : What do you think about French feminism and its realizations in France ? I am thinking of certain laws - against violence, rape, sexual harassment, but also for parity in politics. How do you appreciate the French situation ?

The law on parity, a real, possibly major event

Catharine A. MacKinnon : Well, it’s a large and varied movement, and it’s gone on for a long time, from Antoinette Fouque and Monique Wittig, originally, to all the contemporary developments that you mentioned. It’s been a rich movement of activism and theory, change and attempted change at all levels just like in every other country. But varyingly so. And it’s clear that, for instance, the law on parity is a real, possibly major event. I would single that out worldwide. The law on sexual harrassment is recent, and the original one, although important, was excessively narrow. The « moral harassment », so called, which is really, I think, psychological harrassment, is something of a help, but there are still real absences - lacunae - there are holes in it. I think that in general, the ability of having activism and theory, on some of the most central issues of the status of women, has been restricted by the lack of investigation into the subject of sexual violence in France, empirically. And I’ve actually been saying this for 30 years. And finally, in the year 2000, there really was a study. But up until that time, people told me that the problems that I discuss in my work don’t exist in France. And I told them that they couldn’t know whether they do or don’t until they asked. So then comes Europe and they finally do ask and they find out - as I’m talking about in the introduction to « Le féminisme irréductible » which exists, thanks to you (laughter) - that once that information is present, you can have a whole different development of activism and theory. But until then, until you begin to know the larger systematic reality of women as a group, with regard to sexual abuse, it’s as if each woman is alone. And you can’t make a movement out of that. You really do need to know the larger reality and I think that has had a very negative effect on theorizing as well as activism in France. Maybe now that will change.

CA : But there is a lot of resistance to these observations. A lot of influential people contest them.

CAM : Of course, but misogyny is constant. We assume that, and just because you’re right doesn’t mean people will agree with you. The purpose of misogyny is to deny the reality of the situation of women so that we continue to put up with it. A few woment continue to benefit from their relatively higher status by supporting the system that keeps all woment down. Misogyny works that way for women. And it works the same way for men as a group, as well. That’s nothing remarkable.

Emily Blake : How would you compare that to the situation in the U.S. ?

CAM : Well, we had this information in the 70’s. And the denial, and the resistance, and the refusal to face it and believe it, continues. And women who continue to mouth that - continue to be advanced and advantaged, and women who persist in raising that reality continue to be attacked andvillified and threatened and punished in every possible way. But we do have more laws, more theory, and more actual confrontation of that reality, because we documented it.

CA : Judith Butler’s « Gender Trouble » has just been translated in french, now she is beloved in France. I think that’s because when you read her you don’t have to do anything for women as a group, you have only to change yourself. What do you think ?

CAM : Or not even that. It’s all just about a selfpresentation, anyway. And also there is no organized, social reality of oppression out there that requires confrontation and change. So of course that makes it very acceptable. And especially when you called it feminism, then everyone has the impression that they can be suddenly very avant-garde and progressive, while doing nothing about it, because it’s all just in play, it’s just a game. It’s very status quo defined. There are people who are in essence in love with gender, from whom male dominance is not a real and oppressive system, talking about it that way maintains it just the way it is, which accounts for why it’s beloved, especially by people in power who then go tell everybody what they should love.

CA : It’s not difficult, you don’t have to change anything at all.

EB : And you can hold a very progressive line, and feel very good about what you’re saying.

CAM : Right. But the real problem isn’t these women. They’re just used, they’re out there, able to be « helpful » but they aren’t our issue ; they are just in the way. These women - Judith Butler et al.- they’re just voices for a certain kind of misogyny and denial. They’re not creating the problem ; they are useful and they’re in the way. But let’s talk about the pornographes ; let’s talk about the international sex traffickers ; let’s talk about the rapists ; let’s talk about the sexual harrassers. THEY are the problem.

« Real to power »

EB : I’d like to cite a couple of lines that you used in your talk (« Women September 11 : Rethinking the International Law of Conflict »). Your expression « real to power » - to be real to power in the eyes of power. I wonder what that meant to you, and whether you feal that you are ? And what is so threatening about you ?

CAM :I don’t know. It’s really a question you should ask them (laughter). I used to think that what is threatening about me is that I actually say the truth that everybody knows but most people don’t say it. It means that women can come together to change it and that’s why I’m threatening. Not that’s there is anything about me specifically.

« I’m just saying what other women are saying. »

EB : The possibility of real change…

CAM : Yes and that of course is frustrating : that they haven’t crushed me yet. I somehow just don’t seem to go away or shut up, no matter what they do. I just think that I’m no different than any other woman. I’m just saying what other women are saying and, with other women, looking for ways to make sure they can’t just be erased. And being determined, and not stopping in that agenda, is threatening. And also, being uncompromising in that agenda : this - « you can fool me » ; well, no, actually. You can give me this benefit, or whatever : no, I won’t take it, no, I won’t shut up ; you can give me no job for 12 years and I’ll figure out a way to survive while I keep saying what I am saying. That’s what it is. It isn’t that I’m transformed in some status-like fashion.

For instance, we saw, in the U.S., black men become « real to power », at a certain point in time : a group of men who were’nt…

EB : Do it.

CAM : Do it. They crossed the line. And it was done through violence. So it’s like that kind of change . And it isn’t the kind of thing, I think, that happens with individuals, except some individuals - people who have real, actual, institutional power, like members of the Supreme Court - They’re real to power, alright.

CA : A major problem for women is that they’re mixed with men, it’s different from racial questions where black peple were segregated.

CAM : Yes, but that’s a consequence. I think that segregation was a result of the structure of the subordination and in particular, it facilitated the exploitation. But also in the American South, for example, Black people lived right with white people, and it didn’t change the structure of the oppression at all. It did make it a little harder to organize those people, because they were advantaged by their closer connection with dominance. Even today in the U.S., Black people know that racism exists in a way that women often don’t know that sexism exists. And it’s not even about separation because there is still a lot of racail segregation. Middle class Black people, for example, they know that racism continues to exist. They don’t have any trouble knowing. It’s not really about that. And also, if we’re talking about whether you are « real to power » or not, it isn’t about whether you’re living with someone. It’s about something entirely else. Black people continue to live in segregated circonstances and actually became « real to power » by burning their own houses down : by the violence that they resorted to because nothing else was working. It’s that kind of change that women haven’t figured out how to make. It isn’t really about what goes on in your head, it’s about what goes on in the head of dominance. That’s what make you « real to power. » You could be « real to power » right now, we already are : and it makes no difference.

Oppression for women happens everywhere

CA : But one of the structure of the oppression for women is in the family.

CAM : That’s part of it, that’s one place for it. But it is also everywhere else.

CA : But the first place is in the family.

CAM : Well, you can say so, but I don’t. I don’t think that’s time. It’s one place that it happens, but it actually happens everywhere, all at once. It definitely happens in the family where girls are sexually abused but also girls are sexually abused outside the family when they’re children.

CA : But you’re alone, in the world and life when you are a child and what you first learn is oppression.

CAM : Yes, but the oppression of women isn’t primarily, I think, what we learn, the oppression of women is primarily what they do. And it happens in the family, sure, but it also happens everywhere else just as much at the very same time. Prostitution isn’t in the family, primarily. Pornography isn’t either, although it takes place in connection with it. The workplace isn’t in the family. You can have a family-based model of it, if you want to, that’s a way of thinking about it. But it’s not how I think about it.

CA : Yes, but I think the oppression of women is so strong because the oppression is outside your family and also inside your family especially when you are growing up.

CAM : Yes, you do.

CA : So I think the oppression of women is greater than for racism.

EB : Because it is more intimate ?

CAM : That could well be, but I think it’s more intimate because it’s sexual. And that never changes whether you’re in the family or not.

EB : And regardless of whether sexual harrassment occurs inside or outside the family.

CAM : Yes, and I think the intimacy of that is what makes it difficult rather than where it takes place.

CA : What I wanted to say was that in your family you LOVE people who are oppressing you : your father, your brothers, even your mother. So it makes things HARDER.

CAM : Yes you have no place to go to get away from it. I think that’s totally right. But that’s not because the family is the primary place, but because people you love are also the people who are doing it to you. And that’s true wherever you are in society : whether you’re in the family, or whether it’s you friends, any place, any way. That’s totally true, that’s totally right. And it does make it a lot harder, right. The other thing is that there is no place in the world where it does’nt happen. And, for example, there is Africa. In Africa everybody is Black and everybody runs things. Things run. It was really important, in the U.S. that the oppression of Black people isn’t all there was. You don’t have to go there - although some people did, and do - to have it as a place in your mind, where this isn’t your eternal destny. There is no such a place for women. There is no Africa for women. And that makes it harder too. So people talk about historical matriarchies and try to go live there in their minds, and try to undo the system in their minds, and everything else. But there is no place, materially, where - to different degrees, absolutely - there is no place where it isn’t.

EB : That you can refer to, to liberate yourself.

No alternative for women

CAM : Right. To say, see ? It’s not biological, it doesn’t have to be this way, it’s not natural, it’s not genetical. And there is no such place. As far as we know, actually, there hasn’t been one. Although there have been places where women have lots more power than they do have in most places today. There are some places today where women have actual power, although not usually as women. Although in Canada there is this thing - you can call it state feminism and it is much more like that. Like in Sweden, at a certain point, there was a huge number of women in the legislature, in parliament, and they really started doing things as women. Also Iceland, for example. There are these places. But for the majority of women their status is not yet transformed by that. It isn’t that doesn’t matter : it matters a lot. But they’re still being raped, they’re still being prostituted. Although in Sweden, the women decided not to be prostituted anymore.

CA : Why does the swedish law protect specifically women ?

CAM : Well, whoever is being prostituted ? Mostly women, because of the status of women. Mostly, men can do anything else, so they do. But when they can’t, there they are. And so for anyone. They made it a crime to buy a woman for sale. And the people who were bought testified and were heard, and it’s happened.

CA : A lot of women now seem happy, content with their condition maybe because the power of oppression operates twice : physically but also deeply in your mind. How can we change this situation ?

CAM : My thought about that is that, mostly, women tolerate the situation the way it is and try to get the best of it, because they don’t have real alternative to live differently. So, I think that they think what they think largely because it’s true : not that it’s great, but that they have no alternative but to make the best of it as it is. I think it’s our job to create real alternatives for them, so they can see what’s wrong with the current situation. It’s one of the reasons that I work with Law and Institutional Change, because it’s possible to talk about how women should be discontented with their situation. But if they can’t do anything about it, what’s the point ? So what I have decided is that if you make it possible for women to do something about the situation then they’ll figure out whether they’re contented with it or not, because they have a real option to change it. And so, for example, our law about pornography would give women the choice - women who are in the pornographic materials, for instance, or women who are being sexually abused in ways that they can PROVE, or sexually violated in ways they can PROVE, from the pornography - to do something about it. And meantime, one would think they were contented with it ; one would think they were happy about it. But the only reason you can think that (and maybe they actuelly are !) - is because they have no alternative ! So give them an alternative, and then we’ll see how contented they are !

Prostitution is not a choice

CA : Yes. But some women are contented with their situation, some of them have interesting positions, academic or mediatic positions, like Elisabeth Badinter for example…

CAM : Well, good for them (laughter). Fine, and meanwhile, when I talk to them, after the 5th time they ask me « don’t you really think it’s possible that there are women in prostitution who are having a wonderful time ? My question to them is « Do you want to do it ? » At which point they turn about six colors and say « No ». So then I say « WHY NOT ? » And they basically say « Because I would rather be a journalist…

EB : A law professor, a novelist, a movie star …

CAM : Yes ! Right ! At which point what I have to say is : « OK, now, why don’t you give them the alternative to be a journalist…

EB : That you just gave yourself …

CAM : Instead of the person who you, as a journalist, are using to BE a journalist, namely the person who’re interviewing about how happy they are in prostitution. Why don’t you let them write their own article ? » Then they begin to get the point. But I can tell you how remarkable it is to go all over the world and have people telling me how happy women in prostitution are. You take the most oppressed situation of women and present it as what they’re choosing. Meantime we will all talk about that when in fact there are studies of these women in large groups - not just the ones the pimps are paying today to say what great time they’re having - and their rates of post-traumatic stress which are higher than Vietnam’s veterans from combat zones. That isn’t what a happy person looks like. That’s what somebody who’s being shot at looks like.

CA : I know. But someone like E. Badinter, not to mention her, will object that you don’t have to compare a prostitute with a journalist but rather with a woman who works in a factory.

CAM : Yes. So they should be paid better. And no one says that factory work for women is great. But what they do is they organised them, they try to get them paid much better and give them alternatives too. So it isn’t only women who work in certain kinds of factories. The other thing is that the left talks about oppressed labor all the time, and factory workers are their example . They don’t say they’re free ; they don’t say they’re choosing it.

EB : No one ever cites the factory worker as an example of a happy woman who’s fully evolved…

CAM : Of Freedom ! Of Liberty ! And I don’t either. But all of a sudden the prostitute is the prime example of what freedom really looks like. You don’t go around talking to factory workers making them come on the air and say how much they love their job, so that everybody will continue to buy what they make.
Not to mention E. Badinter is in Publicité. What that means is that she has access to the public airwaves and has identified a niche for herself to be the « misogynist feminist ». It’s a very lucrative place to position yourself.

EB : A massive amount of control of the discourse.

CAM : Massive, and so now we can all go and talk about her.

EB : Every sentence she utters is on the front pages of the press. And no one ever refers to her as a prostitue for Publicis.

CA : She is always presented as a philosopher instead.

CAM : She just appears everywhere as a misogynist in a female body.

CA : So do you think women have to be really conscious of their subordinate condition and to struggle ?

CAM : Yes. And collectively to make change, both with each other and in their own lives. Legally, and in every other way. And did someone tell me there’s a feminist political party in France ?

CA : Yes, Gisele Halimi started with « 100 femmes pour les femmes » in the 80’s They presented a list for the elections of the parliament and G. Halimi was elected.

CAM : But nothing further ? It does not exist any one ?

CA : No .

Sweden and mythe of women as « equal »

CAM : Well, we’ll see what happens next. There’s one in Sweden.

CA : It’s surprising because Sweden is the most advanced country for women.

CAM : Well, it isn’t, from the standpoint of sexual abuse, at all. It’s just a question of what you look at. The fact is that until recently they didn’t even have rape crisis centers. They just had battered women’s shelters, because they’re against violence and for sex. It took forever, Andrea dworkin and I went in 1990, and that’s what we were trying to do. And also to deal with pornography, and everything else.

CA : But don’t women have more power in Sweden than in any other country ?

CAM : Well, now ; but they’re still trying to deal with the pornography. But look at it for « swedish pornography » they traffic women worldwide. They have changed that to some extent, but that’s what happens. The image of women as « equal » in Sweden is used to pimp them to the world. The idea of swedish women as being « so equal » then becomes part of…

CA : A myth ?

CAM : The myth, yes, that makes it look consensual.

EB : Is this maybe, part of what makes it so difficult ? When I first came to France and heard about parity, I was thrilled.

CA : But the law isn’t applied.

EB : I’m well aware of that ! But the first time I ever heard this word, I picked up the paper, and I read : starting up next year, there have to be exactly the same number of men and women…

CAM : On the list

EB : On the list.

CAM : There’s the hitch ! At least they’re there, though.

EB : Exactly. But there’s always I think, a moment of genuine excitement, when you think : Oh, look…

CA : It’s due to the way the elections are conducted. More women have been elected at the municipales where there is a list than for the parliament where one deputy is elected locally.

CAM : But the men beat women constantly especially in the higher levels.

EB : The further up you go. But you do get the impression seemingly institutionalized, that there has been progress. In the same way, in Swedem, I met some women from the swedish parliament at a political event 2 years ago. And they seemed more « radical » than french women, just in terms of the way they talked, the way they were thinking the things they were targeting to do on the parliamentary level.

CAM : Absolutely.

Racisme et oppression of women : different struggle

EB : I felt this breath of fresh air. But when you come back to the ground and look at what’s actually happening and you see the same things repeated over and over…
You cited, ealier the Black struggle. You can’t make precise analogies, but…

CAM : It’s a real model.

EB : It’s an excellent model. Certainly in the U.S. In terms of what is radical - to do something like burning down your own neighbourhood. When you talk about having real choices, if you supply women with real choices, they will take them of course. But when you look at a population like the Afro-Americans - they didn’t really have any choice economically speaking, in terms of education, in terms of their whole history of slavery - but they created a series of choices for themselves by seizing the violence that had been imposed on them and using it. There is an insidious quality to what you’ve been talking about, women internalizing this idea about their freedom, accepting it, trying to do so. Do you think it would require something like that ?

CAM : Well, I don’t know. It probaby would help, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. What it poses, really, is the challenge of doing it a different way, a way more suitable to this particular group. One of the things about women and violence is both how much of it is directed against them and how resistant to doing it women are. It’s called passivity but it isn’t. It’s more really thinking, first of all, that all that’s going to happen is make more of it, and there’s good evidence that that’s true. And the other thing is that you really get to the point where having had it done to you for so long - it really doesn’t look like any big improvement to you to do it to someone else. So I just think that really is the men’s route to power. And I don’t think it’s going to be ours. And not because I’m against it : if I thought it really would work, I would do it. I really am of the « By any means necessary and effective » school. But I don’t think it will. I don’t think women will do it, and I also don’t think it really would change anything. It’s partly because violence is so basic to the oppression of women. It’s not just a means. It’s fundamental. I think the sexualisation of violence is what this is about. I don’t think that’s true about race. First of all, people don’t sit around endlessly and agonize about what racism is about…

EB : It’s very clear…

CAM : Well it isn’t, actually ; no one knows. There aren’t sixteen schools of thought on it, and people don’t sit around torturing people who are trying to make change on the basis of race, by asking them WHY racism exists. Because no one knows, actually. It’s seen as a way that men fight their wars of advantage over each other. But WHY it’s along racial lines, no one knows. And - If you have to answer WHY it was Black peple, Africans, who becames slaves - who were enslaved, and WHY there was a war millenia long between the Japanese and the Chinese, nobody thinks they even have to answer that question while talking about racsim, having it be illegal, doing something to end it, etc… They don’t think they need to know WHY it’s there, in order to be against it, and to work for change. It’s an interesting fact. Because people are endlessly talking about how they don’t know where the oppression of women came from, as if they have to know in order to end it. And I don’t think they do. I’m fine with knowledge, I’d be glad to know ; I have my own ideas about it, and everybody’s welcome to have their own ideas about it. But I think the question of what glues it together NOW, and what makes it proceed NOW, and what we have to attack in order to end it NOW, is actually a different question. I think about the question of violence and war that it is a sort of the ultimate male tool. And whether that means it will work in our hands or not, I’m not sure. But I really do think that most women have decided not only that they don’t want to do it, but that it wouldn’t work.

But it really is worth considering seriously, instead of just dismissing outright, or on moral grounds.

CA : I don’t know if you’ll appreciate the comparison but for me you are close to Noam Chomsky , I don’t know if you like him …

CAM : I don’t know if I do either, but tell me if I should.

CA : I wanted to say that both of you are responsible intellectuals, denouncing injustice all over the world.

CAM : Yes. Is he going to understand gender, ever ? (pause) I said, is he ever going to understand gender ?

CA : The fact is he doesn’t speak that much about women and gender ! But sometimes he speaks abaout women.

EB : Maybe it’s not quite his field.

CAM : Not quite. But whether he can have his field without understanding gender is a question to think about. No, there activist intellectuals, right ?

CA : Yes, exactly. Were you a feminist from the very beginning ? When you were a child ?

CAM : I suppose, probably. But you know, you can’t really be a feminist without a women’s movement, I don’t think. You can try doing it all by yourself, but you don’t reallyhave what you need to fully realize it. To me, it’s a collective and community thing. So, I guess I became a feminist with the rise of the women’s movement that i’ve been a part of. But in terms of the level of feminism that is about just the impulse to self-respect in every woman, sure. But lots of women are !

Interview, July 3rd, 2005.

 French version.

On Sisyphe, October 6, 2005

Catherine Albertini et Emily Blake

Source - -