Mackinnon, Catharine Alice

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Catharine A. MacKinnon is a law professor, author, and one of the leading scholars in feminist legal theory. MacKinnon's ideas about sexual harassment and pornography have forced courts and legal commentators to reexamine their assumptions. Her controversial proposal for suppressing pornography was enacted by the city council of Indianapolis, but the ordinance was ultimately overturned by a federal appeals court.

MacKinnon was born in 1946 in Minnesota. Her father, George E. MacKinnon, was a prominent republican party leader who served one term in Congress and later became a federal appeals court judge. MacKinnon graduated from Smith College in 1969 and then attended Yale University Law School. She received her law degree in 1977 and a Ph.D. in political science from Yale in 1987.

MacKinnon was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1978, and the following year she published her first book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination. She served as co-counsel for Mechelle Vinson in the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court case concerning sexual harassment in the workplace: Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 106 S. Ct. 2399, 91 L. Ed. 2d 49 (1986). The Court agreed with MacKinnon that the concept of a "hostile work environment" was actionable under the 1964 civil rights act (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq.) as sex discrimination. The Court rejected a narrow reading of the law that would have restricted sexual-harassment claims to discrimination of an economic character. Under this restrictive reading, an employer could not be held liable for harassment unless the employee's salary and promotions were affected by the actions.

Between 1979 and 1989, MacKinnon was a visiting professor at a number of prominent law schools, including her alma mater, Yale. Although she was a prolific writer and a popular teacher, her views and her actions concerning pornography made her a controversial public figure. Her radical feminist theories challenged the legitimacy of the legal system and mainstream liberal thought. She argued that men, as a class, have dominated women, creating gender inequality. According to MacKinnon, this inequality is the consequence of a systematic subordination rather than a product of irrational discrimination. Thus, heterosexuality is a social arrangement in which men are dominant and women are submissive. Gender, for radical feminists, is a question of power.

"Pornography sets the public standard for the treatment of women in private and the limits of tolerance for what can be permitted in public."
—Catharine MacKinnon

In MacKinnon's view, pornography is a powerful tool of the dominant male class, subordinating women and exposing them to rape and other abusive behavior. In 1982, she and feminist author andrea dworkin convinced the Indianapolis city council to enact a pornography ordinance that expressed their theory of sexual subordination. The ordinance described

pornography as "a discriminatory practice based on sex which denies women equal opportunity in society," and defined it as "the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women, whether in pictures or words," especially in a violent or degrading context. The ordinance made unlawful the production, sale, exhibition, and distribution of pornography and gave anyone who was injured by a person who has seen or read pornography the right to bring a civil suit against the maker or seller.

Supporters of the ordinance argued that the legislation was a civil rights measure that was meant to fight sex discrimination. In their view, the ordinance regulated conduct, rather than free speech, and thus did not violate the first amendment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in American Booksellers Ass'n, Inc. v. Hudnut, 771 F.2d 323 (1985), overturned the ordinance. The court agreed that pornography affected the way in which people view the world and their social relations, but it observed that the same could be said of other protected speech, including expressions of racial bigotry. To permit the MacKinnon-Dworkin approach would give the government control of "all institutions of culture" and allow it to be the "great censor and director of which thoughts are good for us." Despite the demise of the ordinance, MacKinnon has remained steadfast in her view, sometimes debating persons who defend the publication of pornography on First Amendment grounds.

In 1989, MacKinnon became a tenured law professor at the University of Michigan Law School. She was named as the Elizabeth A. Long Chair in Law in 1998. Since 1997, she has served as visiting professor of law at the University of Chicago and has also served as a visiting professor at Columbia University and the University of Basel in Switzerland. She has continued to write and to lecture about feminist jurisprudence.

MacKinnon's 1993 book, Only Words, restated her attack on pornography, rape, and the sexual subordination of women. In 1998, she published another book entitled In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings, and in 2001, she published a casebook entitled Sex Equality. She has a number of works in progress.

MacKinnon remained active in litigation. In August 2000, along with co-counsel, she successfully secured a $745 million verdict in a New York court for Croatians and Muslim Bosnian women and children who were sexual victims in Serbia. Kadic v. Karadzic, 866 F.Supp. 734 (S.D.N.Y. 1994), 70 F. 3d 232 (2d Cir. 1996), cert. denied 518 U.S. 1005 (1996). The case, originally filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victim Protection Act, established rape as a legal claim for genocide under international law and has been influential in domestic and international courts. MacKinnon also served as co-director of the Lawyer's Alliance for Women.

further readings

MacKinnon, Catharine. 2003. Sex Equality: Sexual Harassment. New York: Foundation Press.

——. 2001. Sex Equality: Rape Law. New York: Foundation Press.

——. 1993. Only Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

——. 1989. Toward a Feminist Theory of State. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

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