Lawyer, professor and gender equality activist Catharine MacKinnon addressed a question first proposed by author Philip Merrilees in 1972: Can the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil create a tornado in Texas? This is the metaphorical idea at the center of MacKinnon’s latest book, “Butterfly Politics,” in which she discusses the widespread effects that seemingly small actions can have in the context of fighting for gender equality and bringing an end to sexual harassment.
“Some extremely small, simple actions, properly targeted and in the right conditions, can have complex and large effects eventually,” MacKinnon said.
The event on Thursday, which was sponsored by the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, the Jack Miller Center, the Kreeger Wolf Endowment and the Center for Legal Studies, took place in Hardin Hall at the Rebecca Crown Center. Both students and faculty members were in attendance. The lecture was followed by a book signing, which quickly accumulated a long line immediately following MacKinnon’s closing words.
MacKinnon, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and James Barr Ames Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, is one of the most widely-cited legal scholars in the English language, won a groundbreaking case defining rape as an act of genocide and was involved in the creation of the Swedish Model to abolish prostitution.
In her talk, one major idea that MacKinnon focused on was consent in the context of the law. She stressed the point that, in her opinion, the word “consent” should be removed from sexual harassment law altogether. Rather, she said, it should be replaced with the term “coercion,” changing the concept of force to something that extends beyond being only physical.
“Suppose you are given unequal pay and you take it,” said MacKinnon. “That doesn’t make the pay equal.”
This gender inequality, according to MacKinnon, is a systemic issue. Although the definition of the word “victim,” according to international law, is one who has been victimized by a violator of a recognized violation, MacKinnon said the word is still far too often associated with passivity.
“Apparently, we lose our credibility with our virginity,” MacKinnon said.
The international #MeToo movement, however, has made great strides toward shifting the way that sexual assault is discussed. According to MacKinnon, the movement is unique in the way that it is addressing this issue.
“Imagine a revolution, without violence, against domination,” MacKinnon said about the #MeToo Movement. “This is happening all around us, right now.”
MacKinnon’s emphasis on the #MeToo Movement is something that encouraged young women like graduate student Samantha Freeman to attend the event. Freeman expressed her excitement at being able to put a face to the words of MacKinnon’s books.
“I really appreciated the connections to the current #MeToo Movement and the way in which she was able to articulate the changes that have been happening,” Freeman said.
MacKinnon credited the #MeToo Movement with accomplishing substantial social and cultural change that she admitted might not have been accomplished to this extent if it was done through the law.
“#MeToo is surpassing law in changing the norms and providing relief in ways the law did not,” MacKinnon said.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump is another event that MacKinnon said cannot be discounted in the discussion of the #MeToo Movement. She said that Trump’s presidency instilled anger in a population of women that may have previously struggled to express their experiences.
“[Trump was] caught on tape explicitly saying that he could grab anyone by the genitals because he was the star of the show,” MacKinnon said. “Many women were outraged by this and by the fact that charges of sexual abuse against him made by 22 women did not matter enough to bar, far less derail, his candidacy or his election.”
The media, according to MacKinnon, also plays a significant role in the process of improving the state of the conversation surrounding the law and sexual assault. Many publications, MacKinnon said, have made choices to include more information about gender discrimination cases, something that helped increase positive change.
“No small part of the cultural changes that are occuring really are due to mainstream media continuing its ethical, sometimes inspiring, consciousness, grace and focus,” MacKinnon said.
According to MacKinnon, the #MeToo Movement and the way in which it was proliferated by the current political climate and mainstream media is a perfect example of the butterfly effect. Together, the voices of individual women were effective in instilling real social and cultural change.
“Do you know what a collectivity of butterflies is?” MacKinnon asked. “A kaleidoscope.”