Cambridge, USA: Catharine MacKinnon and law as courage, emotion, and social change

BY JESSICA CORSI

When Catharine MacKinnon said goodbye to us at the end of her Sex Equality class on Wednesday October 28, she choked up, and we all choked up with her.  The emotion was evident in her voice as she read us a passage from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own that can be found in the center of MacKinnon’s Sex Equality textbook.  The passage entreats us to work: it reminds us of why we work at all, and describes vividly the people for whom we work when we work on sex equality:

“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young – alas, she never wrote a word . . . . Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die . . . they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.

This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting–room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality . . .  then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.

. . . As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”

Why do we study law? Why do we study Sex Equality and why do we put ourselves through the process of qualifying at the bar and why do we go to work every day?  We do all of these things because Shakespeare’s sister is dead and she never wrote a word, despite all she could have shown us and despite how much she could have enriched our lives and fulfilled the purpose of her own.  And when we sat in our Sex Equality class, we came into contact with all of the girls and women—and boys and men, too; but mostly women and girls—who are dead or too sick or hurt or too poor or too shut out of education or work to write, to share their gifts, to live their lives and to contribute to ours.  In Sex Equality, we engaged in something that often falls by the wayside in legal education:  the reality of the lives of those living under and touched by the law. 

Legal discourse is theoretically and intentionally rational, but Sex Equality was an emotional class.  Contrary to the need to suppress emotion, it was invited into the classroom to inform processes of reason and applications and evaluations of law and legal opinion.  Does the current state of rape law make you angry? Well, it should; and that anger is an indication that the law in both the black letter and in its implementation should be modified.  Do the horrifying realities of prostitution and legal decisions that blame the victims of these horrors and not the perpetrators of them make you sick? They should.

And instead of throwing your hands up and joining the ranks of the complacent, consider instead what your unique position as a person with elite legal training could contribute to eradicating horrors, and to eradicating all of the other forms of discrimination we face in our daily lives.  Why just study the law and obey the law?  If the law makes you unhappy, if the law is grossly disconnected from the realities in which we live, if the law perpetuates rather than alleviates the harms of sex discrimination—do something.  You are more than equipped.  What is a Harvard Law School education good for if not this?

When Professor MacKinnon finished reading from Virginia Woolf, we gave her a standing ovation.  Afterwards, I thought about why.  I thought about why every day her class was full of people auditing—not just other students but other professors, Harvard staff members, and people from the community.  I had received emails from friends of friends who wanted to take off work and come to see her speak.  What attracted these people so strongly to her class, I think, is her courage.  But not just any courage—courage to speak truth not only to the power of our gendered hierarchies but to the power of the law.

Legal education can make us cowed.  We fall into the habit of repeating the law as it is already applied.  We are not innovators, and if we are, we innovate on behalf of clients who have no particular reason to be deserving of legal change other than that they have paid for our services.  But Sex Equality class was about courage to face down and modify the existing legal structure on behalf of vulnerable and marginalized people—women—who do not have billions of dollars to throw down for our services and for whom legal innovation is not a matter of a better and more efficient merger or a more profitable contract but rather a matter of life and death.

And with this move we return a deeper meaning to the legal profession.  Perhaps some of our law school class pursued a law degree for the sole purpose of obtaining a steady, high status job that promises heaps of money.  But other people came to law school because they see the law as a tool and they connect emotionally to people that they would like to help through the law. They want to see social change that eliminates discrimination and gives voice to those on the margins of society.  Sex Equality gives that back.  It reconnects law to emotion and law to courage and law to social change.

We all choked up along with Professor MacKinnon as she read, because we know from our own experiences that what she read is true: we know that Shakespeare’s sister is dead and that she won’t rise up unless we work. We know that Virginia Woolf wouldn’t have been allowed to enter Harvard Law School because it did not admit women at that time. We know it to be true that if we sit here and do nothing women will not advance.  And so we tear up and we jump to our feet and we clap our hands, because we’ve made it inside these hallowed institutions that Woolf dreamed of entering, and so now we have the power to resurrect the poet, to let her be born in great numbers in the next generation.  We felt our own privilege in that moment, but it was not the usual privilege and arrogance regarding Harvard’s rank in the world and our rank along with it; it was privilege with meaning and power to affect change.  It is the privilege to use our law degrees to improve the lives of those who are truly depending on the law for help.

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