MacKinnon, Catharine A.

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MacKINNON, Catharine A.

Born 1946

Daughter of George E. and Elizabeth V. Davis MacKinnon

Catharine A. MacKinnon, a controversial figure on the contemporary legal and feminist scene, has spent her career fighting sexual and political injustice against women. While no stranger to the machinations of public service with a judge, congressman, and presidential campaign advisor for a father, MacKinnon has stepped outside what many consider the boundaries of legal jurisdiction by addressing "moral" issues such as sexual harassment and pornography. Following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, MacKinnon attended Smith College, from which she graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in government in 1969. She went on to Yale University, where she received her J.D. and a Ph.D. in political science in 1977 and 1987, respectively. Deeply involved in the social consciousness and activism of the 1970s, she was particularly drawn to the feminist movement. From here she became the leading figure in identifying, defining, and working to eliminate sanctioned sexual harassment in the work place. With the 1980s came a new focus for MacKinnon, and she centered her energy on drafting and supporting anti-pornography legislation. She has held visiting professorships at numerous prestigious schools, written several books, and currently holds a professorship at the University of Michigan Law School, where she has taught since 1989.

Called by one critic "the law's most prominent legal theorist," MacKinnon became involved with sexual harassment in 1974 after hearing of one woman's fruitless battle against the heretofore unquestioned and legally unchallenged sexual harassment she faced in the workplace. MacKinnon began a crusade to have sexual harassment redefined as a breed of sexual discrimination. From here she wrote her first book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case in Sexual Discrimination (1979). It was not until MacKinnon helped open the eyes of both the American legal system and the American public to the true nature of this injustice that sexual harassment was recognized as discrimination against the female body. When in 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court heard its first sexual harassment case, MacKinnon was present to help represent the prosecution. The two most important changes brought about by MacKinnon's efforts were the inclusion of a "hostile environment" to the legal definition of sexual harassment, and as a corollary, that the victim was not responsible for demonstrating severe psychological damage as a result of the discrimination. Thus no longer was sex in return for a job the sole definition, but any environment that subjected a woman to sexual advances, overtones, or otherwise inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature fell under the sexual harassment law.

In the early 1980s, MacKinnon joined the feminist anti-pornography movement. Once again she identified a social phenomenon, the selling and buying of misogynist pornography, as sexually discriminating against women. This battle has thus far proved to be a much more difficult one for MacKinnon, both legally and critically. Legislation she codrafted which sought to provide women with the legal right to sue members of the pornography industry has met with resistance and hesitation. Where the sexual advances of a male employee towards a female employee were more tangibly identifiable as discriminatory, the fight against pornography touches on issues of free speech and the First Amendment. Few legal or political activists have been willing to forgo these rights in favor of what many consider a moral stance. MacKinnon has countered these claims by stating "Pornography isn't protected by the First Amendment any more than sexual harassment is. It's not a question of free speech or ideas. Pornography is a form of action, requiring the submission of women…the more pornography men see, the more they enjoy it and the less sensitive they become to violence against women. A rape stops being a rape, the woman stops being a person." Regardless of her adamant arguments, MacKinnon has not enjoyed the same level of support from feminist groups as with her antisexual harassment campaign. Nor has she received critical endorsement from reviewers and other scholars.

Nevertheless, MacKinnon has made her revolutionary voice heard in late 20th-century America. She has helped create laws that aim at freeing the workplace of sexual discrimination in the form of harassment, and continues to fight to free culture from images of objectified and violated female bodies. As a lawyer, teacher, and feminist she brings an important perspective to contemporary women's studies, as well as legal studies. Her publications and public speaking challenge complacency as she fights against the historical and cultural oppressors of women.

Other Works:

Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (1987). Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women's Equality (coauthored by A. Dworkin, 1988). Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989). Only Words (1993).


CA (1991). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). WWAW (1993-94). CBY (1994).

Other references:

New York (22 March 1993). NYT (28 Feb. 1992). Nation (30 May 1987).


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MacKinnon, Catharine A.

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