Respect for women slowly moving into legal system

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

In the 1970s, an expressway billboard in Detroit promoted bowling with the slogan, “Have some fun. Beat your wife tonight. Then celebrate with friends.”

Such blatant jokes about domestic violence are no longer in vogue, according to alumna and Marquette County Judge Patricia L. Micklow, “but we continue to accept violence against women as natural. Police are reluctant to arrest batterers, prosecutors are convinced wives won’t follow through with prosecutions, and judges are frustrated.”

Micklow, who was joined by two U-M law professors, made her comments before an audience of some 250 alumni and students Sept. 18 during a Campaign for Michigan kickoff panel discussion on “Women and Justice: Where are We Now?” The panel was sponsored by the Law School.

The good news, Micklow added, is that “in 1988 the Michigan legislature passed a law that permits prosecution for marital rape, and it is now considering an anti-stalking bill.”

Prof. Christina Brooks Whitman, who analyzed the implications for women of the Supreme Court’s recent Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision, said that the majority decision had been written by three justices, which may account for its internal inconsistencies.

“The Casey decision noted the importance of Roe vs. Wade in the rise of the equality of women,” she said. “And it also acknowledged the dominance men have had historically in marital relationships by rejecting Pennsylvania’s requirement that wives inform spouses before an abortion.

“However, the Court did allow Pennsylvania to regulate abortions, and did not object to the 24-hour waiting period as an undue burden, even though it requires a woman to make two office visits, miss two days on the job and find child care for two days, rather than just one day.”

Roe vs. Wade may still be overturned in the future, she added, depending on the outcome of future elections.

Prof. Catharine A. McKinnon added some optimistic reflections. “Anita Hill transformed consciousness of sexual harassment in the United States as no law could,” she said. McKinnon also pointed out that the new understanding of sexual harassment as illegal discrimination is beginning to transform the law and institutions.

“Women historically were seen as the sludge and slime of humanity, invisible and expendable—people against whom one could do anything. Now, however, we are taking harm to women seriously,” she said.

Michigan courts have adopted the standard of “the reasonable woman,” which recognizes that a woman often will cope with rape far differently than a man thinks he would, or than he thinks she should. “By taking gender into account, the law recognizes that the so-called objective standard was really the ‘white, male standard,’” McKinnon said.

The movement for gender equality, she added, had become “rich, textured and deep—an equality of, through and sometimes in spite of, the law.”


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