Document Type


Publication Date



Ideas travel. Even legal concepts migrate on the globe. However, it is a contested issue whether migration is a good idea. We may enjoy traveling ourselves, but many people in the world of law are somewhat worried if we take legal baggage along. Some claim that legal baggage never arrives at its destination and challenge the very possibility of what some call a legal transplant. Others claim that we already live in transnational legal contexts, while still others claim that migration occurs, and that modifies each legal concept on the road in rather significant ways, which may render the project futile. Yet others, albeit few indeed, but influential when sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court, simply do not want law to travel, whether it would work or not, and defend some version of parochial nationalism. Before we argue whether travelling concepts in law are a good idea or not, we should know what exactly happens when law hits the road. We need a concept to analyze how law travels. I will discuss several candidates for this concept which has been developed in comparative legal studies, as well as in studies of international relations and other fields of political science and will apply these to a specific legal idea, substantive equality, as conceived, communicated and litigated by Catharine MacKinnon. The factors already identified which allow for legal ideas to move beyond the nation-state, including networks of people, institutional and symbolic structures, knowledge-creation strategies, and strategies of government (or more precisely: law makers) do not, as I will demonstrate, sufficiently explain what happened to MacKinnon's idea on the road. Therefore, I propose to add a quality factor to norm diffusion theories. I argue that a specific quality of a legal idea contributes significantly to its travelling abilities. With this, I modify concepts of norm diffusion by adding what I take to be a distinctly legal aspect. In short, political science must take the specificities of the law more seriously. Hopefully, this addition to norm diffusion analysis also further illuminates the very nature of the idea MacKinnon applies to inequalities around the globe. I do assume we are in need of such enlightenment, since this is a theory which has been fought, denounced, ignored, or misread, or, the petty case, has been claimed without citation. Therefore, a systematic analysis of what happened will add to a genealogy of feminist legal ideas and feminist lawyering, which is otherwise often obscured, appropriated, obliterated or distorted in the course of events. This analysis is not a view from a scholarly distance born out of sheer curiosity, as I believe is the case with very few studies anyways. Here, the study is driven by a commitment to comparative constitutionalism and fundamental rights and by a dedication to support interdisciplinary, or what I prefer to call critical, studies in the sense of reflexive legal studies. But in addition, I have worked with Catharine MacKinnon, on and off, for more than twenty years. This has been, and continues to be, a truly inspiring and challenging, thus multifaceted encounter. As a scholar based in Germany and more broadly, Europe, but a recurring visitor to the United States, it is also an experience in how an idea travels in a national context. Initially greeted with polite curiosity for the foreigner, I have had many conversations in the United States come to an abrupt halt when I referred to this collaboration and, not least, this friendship. Many U.S. colleagues put me in the trenches with the one who they constructed as the enemy and, turning away, stopped talking. Soon I learned to tell people what I think first, and then uncover one great source of this way of thinking later. It seems harder to then simply walk away just because a name came up, but it still happens. In the United States, this polarization has not suited feminism, or any other critical approach to law well. To stop a conversation, to personalize, to demonize, or to glorify, as the other side of the coin, is never a good idea, and often indicates bad scholarship on the side of the speaker too. Therefore, the following is also meant to bridge some gaps people may falsely associate with MacKinnon's work. I hope that this attempt to tell a story of how an idea travels beyond national boundaries may thus also inspire a reconsideration of how an idea travels within a nation. Luckily, others, and Kimberle Crenshaw is the first who comes to mind,l build bridges which allow for such movements, reconciling feminist and antiracist theory and politics which have in fact been a joint force from the beginning. And if we want to understand what allows and what stops ideas from such travels, we can use the concepts designed to understand transnational norm diffusion, which I will do just now. In what follows, I discuss how Catharine MacKinnon's ideas have travelled as a case study based on legal material and some conversations with people who have been involved. I seek to understand the factors which ease or hinder such travelling of legal ideas and will discuss several approaches to the issue. Some are used in comparative law - transplants, transnational law, migration - while more holistic understandings have been developed in political science, as in studies of international relations, multi-level governance, and, more recently, transnational interaction in transnational policy networks. These are norm diffusion theories. In particular, and with a noteworthy choice of topic, we have insightful case studies of transnational feminism. In addition, gender studies and postcolonial studies allow us to understand knowledge politics that inform such processes, and they are not new either. When combined, norm diffusion theory and such critical approaches offer a rich analytical matrix. Here, I focus on the addition of the legal quality factor. Some work does hint that the very nature of legal ideas has an impact, but there is, to my knowledge, no full-fledged analytical discussion to understand this yet. So what is this quality? One would think it is substantive equality, sometimes called dominance theory, or subordination, or asymmetrical, depending. Yet I propose that MacKinnon's concept of law reaches deeper than that, to the classic idea which I call radical deconstruction of the public-private ideology. It is as foundational to modem law, liberal fundamentals, and human rights as it is a cornerstone of racism and sexism. Substantive equality A la MacKinnon tackles just that, and this is what she takes beyond the national context, to additional, namely transnational levels. Based on some hesitation to endorse postmodem theory, she would not call it that. But deconstruction, taken seriously, can too be stripped of its depoliticizing pop versions and be used as the radical call for a thorough analysis and reworking of ideologies. Not that reworking the public-private ideology is a new undertaking. One could even argue that radical feminism employed deconstruction as a method before the philosophical and literary studies brand name came along. Whatever we call it, such deconstruction allows for a critical approach to politics, including law, again, in its most reflexive sense.