Monday, October 29, 2012

Teaching Feminist Approaches

(Today IntLawGrrl Diane Marie Amann contributes to our October series celebrating "Feminist Approaches to International Law")

The first words uttered were not encouraging:
'Any time I see Catharine MacKinnon's name in an article, I know I'm not going to like it.'
So declared one of the twelve members of the first seminar I ever led, International Criminal Law, in Fall 1996. As sometimes happens in this course, students were divided almost evenly between human rights activists, mostly women, and military history buffs, mostly men. The declarant was in the latter camp. Prompting his declaration was the following quotation, drawn from a 1987 book by the University of Michigan law professor:
Catharine MacKinnon, 1995
'And Catharine MacKinnon argues: "For women to affirm difference, when difference means dominance, as it does with gender, means to affirm the qualities and characteristics of powerlessness."'
As many readers will recognize, the passage occurs early in "Feminist Approaches to International Law," written by Hilary Charlesworth, Christine Chinkin, and Shelley Wright. The article had been published five years before our seminar, in the October 1991 issue of the American Journal of International Law. It examined international law through a multifaceted feminist lens, discussing inter alia:
► Difference in voices of women and others whom tradition had deemed subordinate;
► Data that demonstrated that men overwhelmingly held the important positions; and
► A masculine normative structure that worked to exclude issues of foremost importance to women from the scope of international legal regulation.
Having found in the article much food for thought, I assigned it for our seminar session entitled "Sexual Offenses As International Crimes." My goal was to use issues raised to lay a foundation for studying how sexual violence had come to be prosecuted in the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and for the former Yugoslavia. (Evincing the novelty of this development, "Feminist Approaches" was the oldest reading assigned for that day. Others included a 1994 article by Kathleen M. Pratt and Laurel E. Fletcher, a 1996 news story by Marlise Simons of the The New York Times, circa-1992 Yugoslavia tribunal texts, and the 1996 debate respecting witness protection.)
My student's declaration, however, did not bode well for this goal. His categorical rejection risked polarizing the class, and so blocking the hoped-for discussion of the evolution of international jurists' approach to accountability for sexual crimes committed amid armed conflict.
I am pleased to report that reason won out.

This was our eighth class session. Over the previous weeks my students had come together as a group in spite of their varied perspectives. And so on this day, others in the seminar took their classmate's declaration not as a conversation-stopper, but rather as an invitation to talk, to exchange ideas, to work together through the readings and the questions they provoked. The declarant and his peers left the session with a deeper understanding of the dynamic state of international law on this topic – of the milestone achievement that prosecutorial emphasis on sexual violence represented, and of the forensic, attudinal, and other challenges that lay ahead.
"Feminist Approaches" contributed in no small part to this result.
Notwithstanding some scholars' questioning of difference and of the public/private divide, I have found both theories useful teaching tools, means to see in a new way. "Feminist Approaches" did not just present these theories. Rather, following a path marked in a 1974 AJIL article by Alona Evans and Carol Per Lee Plumb, Charlesworth, Chinkin, and Wright grounded their theoretical discussion in statistics that laid bare the dearth of women in places of prominence in international law. As do other readers, my students grasped quickly the landscape of a field in which, as then reported, only one woman had sat, ad hoc, on the International Court of Justice, and not one on the International Law Commission, in those bodies' half-century of existence. (Those facts held till the 1995 appointment of Rosalyn Higgins to the ICJ, and so were reprised in an AJIL review of Reconceiving Reality: Women and International Law (1993), a volume produced by the American Society of International Law Women in International Law Interest Group, and edited by Dorinda G. Dallmeyer, whom IntLawGrrls yesterday welcomed as a contributor.)
Judge Rosalyn Higgins
Twenty-one years later, we can point to four women judges to date on the ICJ, and a couple women currently on the ILC. As Jaya Ramji-Nogales wrote in the post that began this series, a handful of women as AJIL editors and, beginning with Evans in 1980, as ASIL Presidents. Several women international Prosecutors. Three women U.S. Secretaries of State. And so on. In short, the numbers have improved, somewhat.
But there's a long way to go, in numbers, in norms, in structure. "Feminist Approaches" is a help to all of us – lawyers and students, women and men – as we continue on that journey.

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