Catharine A. MacKinnon Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Catharine A. MacKinnon 1946-

(Full name Catharine Alice MacKinnon) American essayist, critic, editor, lecturer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of MacKinnon's career through 2001.

Considered by many to be the central figure in modern feminist legal theory, MacKinnon broke new 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 statues. Her seminal work on the subject, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sexual Discrimination (1979), won wide acceptance in the courtroom and became an important standard for sex equality cases across the globe. MacKinnon has also written extensively on the legalities of pornography and hate speech, arguing—often in collaboration with noted feminist author Andrea Dworkin—that pornographic material should not be protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Although her work is perceived by some as polemical and divisive, most commentators assert that her arguments spark constructive debate on a variety of feminist and constitutional topics.

Biographical Information

MacKinnon was born on October 7, 1946, to George and Elizabeth MacKinnon. She received her B.A. in government from Smith College in 1968, her J.D. from Yale University in 1977, and her Ph.D. in political science from Yale in 1987. During the 1970s, MacKinnon became involved in the women's liberation movement and began composing works of political theory supporting her opinions on women's status in society and the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. In 1975 she collaborated with Andrea Dworkin to design legal claims for sexual harassment. MacKinnon later collaborated with Dworkin to construct ordinances classifying pornography as a violation of civil rights. In 1983 MacKinnon and Dworkin drafted anti-pornography ordinances for the city of Minneapolis—which were later vetoed by the mayor—and a year later for Indianapolis. These ordinances classified sexually explicit pictures and words as a form of sexual discrimination and banned their presence in the workplace. A federal appeals court struck down the Indianapolis ordinance as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, which protects free speech. The ruling of the appeals court was later partially upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court recognized MacKinnon's theory of sexual harassment, and the Supreme Court of Canada adopted several of the legal theories she established with the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) regarding equality, hate speech, and pornography. In the early 1990s, MacKinnon began representing Muslim and Croat Bosnian women and children who had been the victims of genocidal sexual atrocities. In August 2000, due largely to MacKinnon's work, the victims received a $745 million verdict for the Serbian wartime violations. This case was the first to establish rape as a legal claim for genocide under international law. Since 1990, MacKinnon has served as a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School and was named to the school's Elizabeth A. Long Chair in 1998. She has taught as a Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School since 1997 and has held teaching positions at a variety of universities, including Yale, Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Minnesota, and the University of California, Los Angeles, among others. MacKinnon continues to write on issues of feminist legal theory and frequently contributes to periodicals on the subjects of pornography, sexual harassment, and gender equality under the law.

Major Works

MacKinnon's successful argument that sexual harassment is sex discrimination formed the basis for her first book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, which is still considered the definitive work on the subject. MacKinnon argues that two forms of sexual harassment exist, both of which qualify as sexual discrimination. The first of these is the “quid pro quo” form of sexual harassment, in which a supervisor ties specific rewards or punishments to an employee's acceptance or rejection of certain sexual conditions. This form of harassment was recognized by lower courts in 1976. The second form concerns “hostile” work environments, where the employee is forced to make the choice between remaining at a job where sexual harassment exists or leaving the position to escape the harassment. The hostile work environment scenario was accepted by the courts in the Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson ruling, where the court acknowledged that such treatment was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. MacKinnon outlined her views on the pornography issue and responded to her opponents in Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (1987), a collection of lectures and essays, and Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women's Equality (1988), which she co-authored with Dworkin. In brief, MacKinnon 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. The essays in Feminism Unmodified also address issues of abortion, rape, women's athletics, sexual harassment, and the rights of Native American women.

In Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), MacKinnon explores the relationship between feminism and Marxism as well as outlining a unified political/social/sexual theory of male domination. The work reconceptualizes equality from its traditional approach, focusing on sameness and difference to an analysis of dominance and subordination. Only Words (1993) 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. The essays attack the past protection of pornography by the U.S. Constitution and compare it and sexual harassment with racial discrimination and abuse. In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings (1997)—which MacKinnon co-edited with Dworkin—compiles the oral testimony of victims of pornography, presenting 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. MacKinnon has also published Sex Equality: Sexual Harassment (2001), a legal casebook which presents arguments supporting sexual equality issues and gay and lesbian rights, and Directions in Sexual Harassment Law (2003), which she co-edited with Reva B. Siegel.

Critical Reception

MacKinnon has been recognized as one of the most frequently cited and influential legal writers of the past thirty years. Despite the controversy surrounding some of her opinions and published works, critics have been quick to note that MacKinnon's skill in drafting relevant legal opinions has made her a fixture in modern jurisprudence. Although many legal and political scholars and activists have lauded her work as original, provocative, and well-reasoned, others have viewed her arguments as radical, polemical, and rigid. MacKinnon's theories on pornography have garnered the most critical reaction, as many commentators consider her position too extreme. Several critics have contended that her views on pornography amount to censorship and act in clear violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Prominent opposition to MacKinnon's theories has included such feminist and liberal organizations as the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT) and the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet others have applauded her courage for investigating the role of pornography in American culture as well as issues of patriarchal power in society. MacKinnon's writings on sexual harassment and sex equality issues have attracted widespread praise, with academics lauding her as an important legal scholar and a major social theorist.