27 MAY 2017

I don’t really have one favourite read. Just a series of books which have each contributed something to my personal take on the world.  Added to that, favourites change don’t they?  An enthusiastic recent read may displace the classic from 20 years ago. Or, it may act as a reminder of the brilliance of an old friend.

So it was for me when I read Catherine MacKinnon’s new book, Butterfly Politics last week. MacKinnon is a Professor of Law in the United States. An American feminist scholar and activist who pioneered the recognition of sexual harassment in US law and who represented Bosnian women survivors of Serbian atrocities to secure the first legal recognition of rape as an act of genocide. Her book represents a lifetime’s work and provides a searing analysis of the importance of addressing sexual violence against women and girls, recognising that our system of law is in itself man-made.  Even the word ‘consent’ in our rape law implies a power relationship of one (man) over the other (woman). But it also presents a message of hope and the power of individual action, citing Lorez’s Butterfly Theory: namely that the flap of the butterfly wing in Brazil can cause a Tornado in Texas.

MacKinnon’s analysis of the reality and prevalence of sexual violence against women prompted me to pick up Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale again. A futuristic dystopian novel, it portrays a world in which the US government becomes a theocracy and has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists.  Women are reduced to their reproductive function, do not exist in their own right and are not even permitted to read.

A few years ago Atwood wrote that she had a rule for herself when writing the book, that she “would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist”. That is the novel’s power and terror. It is not unreal at all. Just think of the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria, or the three million girls at risk of female genital mutilation, or women trafficked into prostitution or domestic service here in the UK. In 19th century Britain everything a woman owned, including themselves belonged to their fathers or husbands. So of course, they couldn’t be given the vote. Nor could they go to University or practice in the professions. In the UK, rape in marriage was only outlawed in 1991. The main protagonist in the Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is named Of-Fred ie, she belongs to Fred.

But this is a far cry from our society today, right? My regular twitter mentions include the lines about girls outperforming boys at school, we have a woman Prime Minister, it’s men we should be worried about etc. But 2 women each week in the UK die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. Over half of women have been sexually harassed at work. The incidence of online harassment and abuse is growing and particularly targets and silences women. The tabloid press readily objectifies our women leaders with ‘Legsit’ headlines. A woman can be sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels. And an openly misogynistic president occupies the White House. The unmistakeable message is we can do this to you.  It’s all about power and control.  Not a world away at all.

But Atwood’s novel ends with a note of hope and the women’s movement is resurgent today. So I’ve got butterflies in a good way. We must all flap our wings.

The Handmaid’s Tale has now been serialised for TV and will be shown on Channel 4 from 28th May.

Sam Smethers, CE of FawcettABOUT AUTHOR

Sam is the Chief Executive of The Fawcett Society.