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MacKinnon, Catharine A. 1946–

MacKinnon, Catharine A. 1946–

PERSONAL: Born October 7, 1946; daughter of George E. and Elizabeth V. (Davis) MacKinnon. Education: Smith College, B.A. (magna cum laude, with distinction), 1969; Yale University, J.D., 1977, Ph.D., 1987.

ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Rita Rendell, University of Michigan Law School, 909 Legal Research, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1210. Agent—Elaine Markson, 44 Greenwich Ave., New York, NY 10011.

CAREER: Lawyer, legal scholar, educator, author, consultant to city and state committees writing pornography codes, and political activist. Admitted to the bar of Connecticut State, 1978; visiting professor of law at Yale University, Harvard University, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles, and University of Chicago, 1980–88; assistant professor of law at University of Minnesota, 1982–84; professor of law at York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1988–90; professor of law at University of Michigan School of Law, Ann Arbor, MI, 1989–.


Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, Yale University Press, 1979.

Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, Harvard University Press, 1987.

(With Andrea Dworkin) Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women's Equality, Organizing Against Pornography (Minneapolis), 1988.

Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, Harvard University Press, 1989.

Only Words, Harvard University Press, 1993.

(With Andrea Dworkin) In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings, Harvard University Press, 1998.

Women's Lives, Men's Laws, The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2005.

SIDELIGHTS: Catharine A. MacKinnon, a feminist author, activist, and legal scholar, ranks among the most original and controversial social theorists in the United States. MacKinnon broke new legal ground in the late 1970s by arguing that the sexual harassment of women in the workplace constitutes a form of sex discrimination in violation of existing civil rights statutes. MacKinnon's thesis, elaborated fully in her 1979 book Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, has won wide acceptance in the courtroom and become an important weapon in fighting the mistreatment of working women.

MacKinnon subsequently directed her efforts toward combatting pornography. In 1983, she and her colleague, author Andrea Dworkin, helped draft an antipornography ordinance for the city of Indianapolis, Indiana. The ordinance forbade the sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words as a form of sex discrimination. The ordinance was supported politically and in litigation by women of many political persuasions, as well as by grass-roots feminist organizations, scholars, civil rights activists, lawyers, and survivors of sexual assault. The Indianapolis ordinance (and a similar law MacKinnon and Dworkin drafted for Minneapolis, Minnesota, and passed twice by the city council) was opposed, however, by some legal scholars, civil libertarians, and a few feminists, who argued that it amounted to state censorship. A federal appeals court struck down the ordinance as an unconstitutional violation of free speech, a result upheld without opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court.

MacKinnon outlines her views on the pornography issue and responds to opponents in Pornography and Civil Rights, which she wrote with Dworkin, and in Feminism Unmodified, a collection of speeches delivered from 1981 to 1986. In brief, the author defines pornography as the sexual subordination of women to men; it constitutes, reinforces, and perpetuates male dominance throughout society and is thus a form of sex-based discrimination. At its most pernicious, MacKinnon maintains, pornography requires for its making—and produces through its use—rape and other acts of sexual sadism and aggression against women as well as bigotry and hatred toward women throughout society. Outlawing pornography is thus not an issue of art or morality, but one of protecting and respecting women as equals.

This thesis has drawn both criticism and support across the political spectrum. Some conservatives have opposed MacKinnon's attacks on male social and sexual dominance. Among liberals are those who question a causal link between pornography and the abuse of women. MacKinnon argues that the link between pornography and sexual inequality is indisputable and based on overwhelming empirical support. She asserts in Feminism Unmodified that pornographers act as the shock troops for male domination by making the female body into a thing for sexual use. Dehumanized and humiliated in a way that is sexualized, women become targets of violence and discrimination, both in pornography and in other aspects of life. Hence, MacKinnon writes, pornography—by subordinating women—is "more act-like than thought-like" and free speech concerns are misplaced. "Pornography isn't protected by the First Amendment any more than sexual harassment is," the author remarked to New York Times Book Review interviewer Tamar Lewin. "It's not a question of free speech or ideas. Pornography is a form of action, requiring the submission of women."

Feminism Unmodified received varying critical responses. Nation contributor Maureen Mullarkey, for example, criticized Feminism Unmodified as relying on "slogans, false premises, half-information, sinister innuendo and ad-hoc reasoning." Expressing a highly favorable opinion in the New York Times Book Review was political philosopher Alison Jaggar, who described the book as "an unorthodox but relentlessly consistent perspective on issues fundamental to feminism" and praised it as "passionate, brilliant, [and] polemical."

MacKinnon's contributions to feminist and social theory have by no means been limited to her opposition to pornography. The speeches in Feminism Unmodified also address issues of abortion, rape, women's athletics, sexual harassment, and the rights of Native American women, and Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, published in 1989, outlines a unified political/social/sexual theory of male domination. MacKinnon reconceptualizes equality from its traditional approach focusing on sameness and difference to an analysis of dominance and subordination.

In Only Words, MacKinnon tackles the issue of circumstances in which forms of expression (specifically sexually explicit words or photographs) can be considered as a form of sexual harassment and therefore banned. She makes her case through three passionate and exceptionally well-researched essays in which she argues that such forms of expression may be banned, even though protected by the Constitution. The essays attack the protection of pornography and compare it and sexual harassment with racial discrimination and abuse. A Kirkus Reviews critic describes MacKinnon's essays as "passionate [and] intellectually fascinating." The reviewer goes on to say that though MacKinnon's conviction sometimes causes her ideas to elide, "the ideas are original and gripping, her references are wide-ranging, her legal logic is provocative."

In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings compiles the oral testimony of victims of pornography. Cass Sunstein, reviewing this volume for Law and Philosophy, summarized its value as "an important addition for academics and for others to the pornography debate." In Harm's Way, Sunstein notes, presents both sides of the debate, including pornography opponents who are social science experts and authorities on abuse and prostitution, as well as advocates of unfettered freedom of speech.

Throughout her writings, MacKinnon attacks "liberal feminism" for limiting its objectives to helping a few women "succeed" in male terms instead of addressing the roots of male domination. She is more concerned with subverting the male-biased definitions of gender that she believes permeate society and perpetuate male supremacy in a way that damages all women. MacKinnon considers issues of race and class as integral to the social/sexual equation. As a tenured professor at the University of Michigan Law School, MacKinnon is expected by observers to remain at the forefront of legal scholarship.



Detroit Free Press, March 1, 1989.

Globe and Mail (Toronto), December 9, 1989.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1993.

Law and Philosophy, 1997, p. 177.

Nation, May 30, 1987.

New York Times, February 24, 1989.

New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1987.

Psychology Today, September, 1987.

Time, March 10, 1986; April 17, 1989.

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