Catharine A. MacKinnon Essay - Critical Essays

MacKinnon, Catharine A.


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.

Principal Works

Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sexual Discrimination (nonfiction) 1979

Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (essays, lectures, and criticism) 1987

Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women's Equality [with Andrea Dworkin] (nonfiction) 1988

Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (essays and criticism) 1989

The Case for Women's Quality: The Federation of Woman Teachers' Associations of Ontario and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms [with M. Eberts, F. Henderson, K. Lahey, S. McIntyre and E. Shilton] (nonfiction) 1991

Only Words (essays, lectures, and criticism) 1993

In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings [editor; with Andrea Dworkin] (nonfiction) 1997

Sex Equality: Sexual Harassment (nonfiction) 2001

Directions in Sexual Harassment Law [editor; with Reva B. Siegel] (nonfiction) 2003


Anna Coote (review date 14 December 1979)

SOURCE: Coote, Anna. “Would You Mind?” New Statesman 98, no. 2543 (14 December 1979): 946-47.

[In the following excerpt, Coote asserts that in Sexual Harassment of Working Women, “MacKinnon's legal analysis gives us some unexpected insights into the complexities of sex discrimination; and her study of sexual harassment provides a useful discipline for examining the law.”]

It isn't easy to get people to take sexual harassment seriously as a problem that besets women at work. (‘Do you get harassed?’ ‘I should be so lucky!’) After all, what is wrong with a bit of horseplay in the office? A girl looks attractive, her boss makes a pass. He's...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

Susan A. MacManus (review date winter 1980)

SOURCE: MacManus, Susan A. Review of Sexual Harassment of Working Women, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Political Science Quarterly 94 (winter 1980): 696-98.

[In the following review, MacManus praises Sexual Harassment of Working Women for MacKinnon's ability to present complex legal arguments in a clear and simple manner.]

In this study [Sexual Harassment of Working Women], MacKinnon answers the central legal question, “Is sexual harassment sex discrimination?” in the affirmative, basing her conclusion upon language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


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Diana E. H. Russell (review date March 1981)

SOURCE: Russell, Diana E. H. Review of Sexual Harassment of Working Women, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Contemporary Sociology 10, no. 2 (March 1981): 321-22.

[In the following review, Russell contends that Sexual Harassment of Working Women provides valuable insight into the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace.]

Sexual Harassment of Working Women is the first scholarly analysis of a pervasive and pernicious problem that has existed ever since women entered the paid workforce, but that has only recently begun to be named, talked about, and challenged in the courts.

MacKinnon began her work on this issue in 1974. At that...

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Maureen Mullarkey (review date 30 May 1987)

SOURCE: Mullarkey, Maureen. “Hard Cop, Soft Cop.” Nation 244, no. 21 (30 May 1987): 722-26.

[In the following review, Mullarkey derides both Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse and MacKinnon's Feminism Unmodified as sensationalistic, irrational, and polarizing attacks on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.]

Is pornography a sex aid, like a dildo, hence undeserving of protection as speech? Is it a potent political message that should be denied protection before it leads to a Haymarket riot of rapists and pedophiles? By what criteria is an image determined “degrading”? Is the pet of the month a nastier purveyor of “bad attitudes” than Calvin...

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Hilde Hein (review date October 1987)

SOURCE: Hein, Hilda. “In Search of Equality.” Women's Review of Books 5, no. 1 (October 1987): 6-7.

[In the following review, Hein delineates the major thematic concerns of the essays collected in Feminism Unmodified.]

Catharine MacKinnon will be best known to readers of The Women's Review of Books for her work in feminist theory1 and, with Andrea Dworkin, for her legislative campaign against pornography. Ordinances proposed by Dworkin and MacKinnon narrowly missed becoming law in both Minneapolis and Indianapolis and, had they been approved, would have radically transformed the law around pornography. I believe that MacKinnon's most important...

(The entire section is 2969 words.)

Raymond W. Mack (review date March 1988)

SOURCE: Mack, Raymond W. Review of Feminism Unmodified, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Contemporary Sociology 17, no. 2 (March 1988): 148-49.

[In the following review, Mack offers a negative assessment of Feminism Unmodified.]

“Gender is an inequality of power, a social status based on who is permitted to do what to whom. Only derivatively is it a difference. Differences between the sexes do descriptively exist; being a doormat is definitely different from being a man. … Inequality comes first; differences come after” (p. 8). If you share (or are interested in) this notion of social stratification and a truly simplistic interpretation of the distribution of...

(The entire section is 262 words.)

Christina B. Whitman (review date May 1988)

SOURCE: Whitman, Christina B. “Law and Sex.” Michigan Law Review 86, no. 6 (May 1988): 1388-403.

[In the following review, Whitman outlines MacKinnon's feminist perspective of law, calling Feminism Unmodified a “rough, powerful, important work.”]

In Feminism Unmodified, a collection of speeches given between 1981 and 1986, Catharine MacKinnon talks of law from the perspective of feminism. MacKinnon does not approach her topic as a lawyer with a uniquely legal perspective on feminism; she brings, instead, a distinctively feminist approach to law. Nor is the feminism from which she speaks grounded in the standard political theories: MacKinnon...

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Katharine T. Bartlett (review date summer 1988)

SOURCE: Bartlett, Katharine T. Review of Feminism Unmodified, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Signs 13, no. 4 (summer 1988): 879-85.

[In the following review, Bartlett investigates the relationship between MacKinnon's themes in Feminism Unmodified and Susan Estrich's Real Rape.]

Catharine MacKinnon's Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law and Susan Estrich's Real Rape are two of the best recent examples of feminist legal writing.1 The authors are prominent feminist lawyers and legal theorists. They both write about the powerlessness of women and the role of the legal system in enforcing this powerlessness.


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Vivien Hart (review date April 1989)

SOURCE: Hart, Vivien. Review of Feminism Unmodified, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Journal of American Studies 23, no. 1 (April 1989): 147-48.

[In the following review, Hart compliments Feminism Unmodified as a “tightly-argued, consistent and provoking work of social theory.”]

MacKinnon is a feminist lawyer, first known (and widely applauded) for her role in winning recognition by American courts of sexual harassment as a legal claim. That principle was detailed and derived from her version of feminism in her first book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, published by Yale in 1979. Since then she has been known, or perhaps notorious, above all...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

Linda Nicholson (review date December 1989)

SOURCE: Nicholson, Linda. “A Radical's Odyssey.” Women's Review of Books 7, no. 3 (December 1989): 11-12.

[In the following review, Nicholson contends that Toward a Feminist Theory of the State exposes the strengths and weaknesses of radical feminism.]

Toward a Feminist Theory of the State was written over an eighteen-year period (parts of it have already been published), but its unity as a theoretical expression of one individual's vision is obvious. Since the chapters were written relatively independently of each other, the reader has to do a bit more work than usual to bring them together. But that they fit together as smoothly as they do must...

(The entire section is 2333 words.)

Elizabeth Kristol (review date April 1990)

SOURCE: Kristol, Elizabeth. “Prisoners of Gender.” Commentary 89, no. 4 (April 1990): 65-8.

[In the following review, Kristol contrasts the feminist theory found in Susan Moller Okin's Justice, Gender, and the Family with MacKinnon's Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.]

For career military, civilian life can sometimes appear aimless and drab. For career feminists, life outside the academy can appear similarly bleak, offering little in the way of glamor, reputation, or moral satisfaction.

“Career feminism” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Women used to become feminists because they hoped that it would open doors to things they...

(The entire section is 2006 words.)

Zillah Eisenstein (review date June 1990)

SOURCE: Eisenstein, Zillah. Review of Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. American Political Science Review 84, no. 2 (June 1990): 635-37.

[In the following review, Eisenstein argues that the essays in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State are “theoretically significant and important contributions” to feminist theory but notes flaws in MacKinnon's “homogeneous” view of male power.]

MacKinnon's book [Toward a Feminist Theory of the State] grapples with the meaning of politics and how we think about what constitutes the political in terms of sexuality itself. The first section of the book, “Feminism and...

(The entire section is 955 words.)

Carrie Menkel-Meadow (review date spring 1991)

SOURCE: Menkel-Meadow, Carrie. Review of Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Signs 16, no. 3 (spring 1991): 603-06.

[In the following review, Menkel-Meadow contrasts the feminist legal theory of Deborah L. Rhode's Justice and Gender with MacKinnon's Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.]

How has law constructed “woman”? How has feminism changed law? What contributions have legal feminism made to political feminism and to feminist theory? Is a feminist theory of the state or its rules of law possible? The authors of these books on legal feminism take on these important questions, if somewhat obliquely. MacKinnon's answers...

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Susan A. Farrell (review date May 1991)

SOURCE: Farrell, Susan A. “Differentiation and Stratification: Age Groups, Class, Gender, Race, and Ethnic Groups.” Contemporary Sociology 20, no. 3 (May 1991): 350-51.

[In the following review, Farrell regards Toward a Feminist Theory of the State as a valuable study for both feminist theorists and sociologists with an interest in feminist legal theory.]

Toward a Feminist Theory of the State is Catharine MacKinnon's newest addition to her continuing project of creating feminist theory. This work in progress contains some previously published essays (the first one is derived from “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory,”...

(The entire section is 962 words.)

Michael J. Meyer (review date July 1991)

SOURCE: Meyer, Michael J. Review of Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Ethics 101, no. 4 (July 1991): 881-83.

[In the following review, Meyer argues that, despite its flaws, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State is a provocative, insightful, and worthwhile addition to feminist studies.]

This [Toward a Feminist Theory of the State] is not an easy book to gauge. It is by turns insightful and obscure. It is quite interesting (even genuinely disturbing in a most thoughtful way), yet it is also, at times, rhetorical to the point that it seems to undermine what may be its very purposes. MacKinnon does have a real flair for...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)

Jean Bethke Elshtain (review date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “Feminisms and the State.” Review of Politics 53, no. 4 (fall 1991): 735-38.

[In the following review, Elshtain contrasts stylistic elements of MacKinnon's Toward a Feminist Theory of the State with Mary Lyndon Shanley's Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England.]

It is by now de riguer in feminist theory circles to repudiate what is called dichotomous reasoning. But I must begin with a stark dichotomy, for these two volumes [Toward a Feminist Theory of the State and Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England] differ as the night to the day. Where Shanley's is an exercise in meticulous...

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Susan E. Bernick (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: Bernick, Susan E. “The Logic of the Development of Feminism; or, Is MacKinnon to Feminism as Parmenides Is to Greek Philosophy?” Hypatia 7, no. 1 (winter 1992): 1-15.

[In the following essay, Bernick maintains that the position of MacKinnon's work in relation to radical feminism is analogous to the place of Parmenides's work in ancient Greek philosophy.]

Feminist theory is in crisis. Given the institutionalization of Women's Studies programs, the research grants funded, and the concomitant proliferation of feminist theories of all descriptions, one might be tempted to believe that any such claim must be an exaggeration at best, and perhaps even a touch...

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Neil MacCormick (review date 22 January 1993)

SOURCE: MacCormick, Neil. “With Due Respect.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4686 (22 January 1993): 3-4.

[In the following review, MacCormick examines MacKinnon's feminist legal theory in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State and finds parallels between her ideas and those of Elizabeth F. Kingdom in What's Wrong with Rights?]

In the very month that saw the bitter break-up of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow amid mutual allegations of startling abuse, a yet more remarkable family lawsuit came to the boil in Florida. Gregory Kingsley sued his mother for termination of her parental rights over him, and won. Gregory was thirteen, but the court recognized him as...

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Roger Kimball (essay date October 1993)

SOURCE: Kimball, Roger. “Sex in the Twilight Zone: Catharine MacKinnon's Crusade.” New Criterion 12, no. 2 (October 1993): 11-16.

[In the following essay, Kimball summarizes MacKinnon's case against pornography, describing her arguments as obsessive and extreme as well as concluding that MacKinnon exhibits a reductive view of human behavior.]

Speaking about pornography is not like anything else. It is crazier. … It makes grown men cry and smart people stupid.

—Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified

Every idea is an incitement.


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Richard A. Posner (review date 18 October 1993)

SOURCE: Posner, Richard A. “Obsession.” New Republic 209, no. 16 (18 October 1993): 31-6.

[In the following review, Posner maintains that Only Words is “eloquent and forceful,” but derides the work for lacking “brevity,” “careful distinctions, scrupulous weighing of evidence and fair consideration of opposing views”]

The title of Catharine A. MacKinnon's new book is intended as an ironic commentary on the belief that pornography is “only words” and therefore, unlike sticks and stones, can never hurt anyone. There is a further irony that is unintended: Only Words is a rhetorical, rather than an analytical, production; it is only words....

(The entire section is 3068 words.)

Ronald Dworkin (review date 21 October 1993)

SOURCE: Dworkin, Ronald. “Women and Pornography.” New York Review of Books 40, no. 17 (21 October 1993): 36, 38, 40-2.

[In the following review, Dworkin outlines MacKinnon's arguments against pornography in Only Words, speculating on how her opinions affect national and state governments and the issue of censorship.]


People once defended free speech to protect the rights of firebrands attacking government, or dissenters resisting an established church, or radicals campaigning for unpopular political causes. Free speech was plainly worth fighting for, and it still is in many parts of the world where these rights hardly exist. But...

(The entire section is 6041 words.)

Roger Scruton (review date 1 November 1993)

SOURCE: Scruton, Roger. “Kiss Me, Cate.” National Review 45, no. 21 (1 November 1993): 61-2.

[In the following review of Only Words, Scruton enumerates the weaknesses of MacKinnon's case against pornography and free speech and asserts that her arguments function to incite hatred against men.]

I read Only Words with horrified amazement—at the thing against which Professor MacKinnon rails, and at the manner of her railing. I knew in outline of the American culture of pornography, and was familiar from her other writings with Miss MacKinnon's hate-intoxicated style. But never had I guessed at the relation between them—the magnetic force with which...

(The entire section is 1776 words.)

Kyle A. Pasewark (review date 17 November 1993)

SOURCE: Pasewark, Kyle A. “Who May Speak?: Amending the First Amendment.” Christian Century 110, no. 33 (17 November 1993): 1164-67.

[In the following review, Pasewark considers how MacKinnon's arguments will affect the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and asserts that Only Words “has the appearance, both in form and content, of a hastily constructed affair born more of anger, invective and deadlines than careful thought.”]

Only Words is a disturbing book—for better and for worse. For better, MacKinnon aims at the heart of an important and heated debate: what may or may not be said in the classroom, in the pulpit or on the street corner...

(The entire section is 2938 words.)

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. (essay date February 1994)

SOURCE: Tyrrell, Jr., R. Emmett. “The Worst Book of the Year.” American Spectator 27, no. 2 (February 1994): 20-1.

[In the following essay, Tyrrell argues that MacKinnon's arguments in Only Words are both “specious and sophomoric.”]

It is that joyous time of year when I and my colleagues on the J. Gordon Coogler Committee confer the Coogler laurels upon the author of that degenerate literary work that we adjudge the Worst Book of the Year. Generally the award is conferred a couple of months into the new year, for in this era of widespread higher education a stupendous number of very bad books are published. Reading them all takes a vast amount of time....

(The entire section is 793 words.)

Cathy Young (review date February 1994)

SOURCE: Young, Cathy. “Rancorous Liaisons.” Reason 25, no. 9 (February 1994): 57-8.

[In the following review, Young asserts that, despite the “hypnotic power” of MacKinnon's prose, the central arguments in Only Words are exaggerated, “spurious,” and poorly constructed.]

A fascinating chapter in The Morning After focuses on legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon (dubbed “the anti-porn star”) as the leading exponent of the new “victim” feminism that sees sexual violation as central to the female experience. Those interested in learning more about the woman who gave us our current sexual harassment laws can turn to MacKinnon's own latest...

(The entire section is 834 words.)

David McCabe (review date 11 February 1994)

SOURCE: McCabe, David. “Is Pornography ‘Free Speech’?” Commonweal 121, no. 3 (11 February 1994): 22-3.

[In the following review, McCabe contends that, although there are some weaknesses in MacKinnon's reasoning in Only Words, the work is “on the whole quite persuasive in arguing that we need to rethink our approach to the pornography debate.”]

In case you haven't noticed, the old battle between pornography and community standards of decency is over; decency lost. While it is true that the Supreme Court has devised an elaborate (and largely irrelevant) test for obscenity, for the most part pornography seems to be here to stay. To no one is this fact...

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Carl Sessions Stepp (review date March 1994)

SOURCE: Stepp, Carl Sessions. “Fighting the First Amendment's Free Ride.” American Journalism Review 16, no. 2 (March 1994): 53.

[In the following review, Stepp lists several flaws in MacKinnon's theories on pornography and hate speech in Only Words but notes that the debate the work has inspired is ultimately important and worthwhile.]

With Only Words, Catharine MacKinnon has touched off a rousing argument about pornography and hate speech. She hasn't won it. But she has locked onto something important, serving notice that the First Amendment's free ride may be over.

Unfortunately, she delivers the message in intemperate terms...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

David C. Dinielli (review date May 1994)

SOURCE: Dinielli, David C. Review of Only Words, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Michigan Law Review 92, no. 6 (May 1994): 1943-52.

[In the following review, Dinielli delineates MacKinnon's feminist legal theories and addresses the critical reaction to Only Words.]

Professor Catharine MacKinnon's1 short book, Only Words, has already produced a flurry of reactions. Only a few who have reviewed the book, which sets out MacKinnon's theoretical framework for her campaign against pornography, have treated it, or MacKinnon, kindly. Most have been unabashed in their criticism. Judge Richard Posner in the New Republic, for example, labels her...

(The entire section is 4846 words.)

Bernard Williams (review date 12 May 1994)

SOURCE: Williams, Bernard. “Drawing Lines.” London Review of Books 16, no. 9 (12 May 1994): 9-10.

[In the following review, Williams comments that the legal arguments in Only Words will be difficult for British readers to fully comprehend.]

Best known as an eloquent campaigner against pornography, Catharine MacKinnon is a lawyer—a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. Not all of this book (based on talks given at Princeton) sounds much like legal argument, and particularly when she is talking about pornography she gives a rhetorical display which may well have been breathtaking in the lecture hall. But the book [Only Words] does...

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Sue Golding (review date 3 June 1994)

SOURCE: Golding, Sue. “Devils and Deep Blue Seas.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 305 (3 June 1994): 45.

[In the following review, Golding explores MacKinnon's concept of free speech as presented in Only Words, focusing on the question of speech versus action as it relates to pornography.]

Catharine MacKinnon is a woman who knows evil when she sees it. Her mission (and ours, should we choose to accept it) is to search out and destroy this evil; to go where no man has gone before and snuff it out at its root.

She calls this evil: pornography; though at times she interchanges it with the words “men” or “them” or “penis” or...

(The entire section is 1185 words.)

James T. McHugh (review date summer 1994)

SOURCE: McHugh, James T. “Pornography and Power.” Review of Politics 56, no. 3 (summer 1994): 596-97.

[In the following review, McHugh considers Only Words to be a valid and notable contribution to the discussion of the limits of free speech under the U.S. Constitution.]

This book [Only Words] offers a continuation of Catharine MacKinnon's earlier writings on the subject of speech, freedom of expression, and constitutional law from her unique perspective of feminist legal thought. It extends her already familiar approaches to this broad issue by challenging dominant civil libertarian attitudes regarding the relationship between women and speech. While...

(The entire section is 917 words.)

Richard Sennett (review date July 1994)

SOURCE: Sennett, Richard. “The New Censorship.” Contemporary Sociology 23, no. 4 (July 1994): 487-91.

[In the following review, Sennett notes that while Only Words is MacKinnon's weakest work, it owes its popularity “to the assimilation of feminism into a rhetoric of aggression, sexual repression, and community building which marked the mythology of the American frontier.”]

By any measure, the United States is a violent society, marked by high rates of murder, assault, child abuse, and rape. Women suffer disproportionately from this violence. Gendered violence has thus prompted new thinking and writing about pornography, but the renewed interest in...

(The entire section is 3066 words.)

Susan Fraiman (review date December 1995)

SOURCE: Fraiman, Susan. “Catharine MacKinnon and the Feminist Porn Debates.” American Quarterly 47, no. 4 (December 1995): 743-49.

[In the following review, Fraiman summarizes the debate among feminists regarding pornography and highlights the strengths of MacKinnon's arguments in Only Words.]

Those of us in academe all know by know that sexuality is constructed. We also know that it may feel rather unreconstructed, even untheorizable. In spite of our training, sexuality may nevertheless seem to us irrational, unmediated, and very personal. Sometimes it seems downright natural. As Catharine MacKinnon observes, “Because of its location in intimacy, harassment that...

(The entire section is 2593 words.)

Lester Olson (review date November 1996)

SOURCE: Olson, Lester. Review of Only Words, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Quarterly Journal of Speech 82, no. 4 (November 1996): 433-35.

[In the following review, Olson presents several objections to MacKinnon's arguments in Only Words but concludes that the book will “almost certainly reconfigure the national debate over pornography, harassment, free speech, and equality.”]

Presented originally as the Christian Gauss Memorial Lectures in Criticism, Catharine MacKinnon's Only Words endeavors to reconfigure the legal treatment of harassment and pornography by developing the thesis that “the law of equality and the law of freedom of speech are on...

(The entire section is 1707 words.)

Charlotte Witt (review date summer 1997)

SOURCE: Witt, Charlotte. “Pornography.” NWSA Journal 9, no. 2 (summer 1997): 165-74.

[In the following review, Witt places MacKinnon's Only Words within the feminist debate over pornography, contrasting her views with Nadine Strossen's Defending Pornography.]

With the Christmas release, to rave reviews, of The People vs. Larry Flynt, it seems that pro-porn philosophy, as argued by Nadine Strossen in Defending Pornography, and Avedon Carol in Nudes, Prudes, and Attitudes, is winning the culture war. The movie portrays Larry Flynt, the publisher of hard-core Hustler magazine, as a flawed but courageous defender of free speech. Frank...

(The entire section is 3979 words.)

Jeffrey Rosen (review date 29 June 1998)

SOURCE: Rosen, Jeffrey. “In Defense of Gender-Blindness.” New Republic 218, no. 26 (29 June 1998): 25-35.

[In the following review, Rosen traces the development of sexual harassment law, discusses the law's recent challenges, and considers MacKinnon's impact on theories of sexual harassment.]


In February, Yale Law School sponsored a conference to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Catharine MacKinnon's Sexual Harassment of Working Women. The Paula Jones trial seemed still likely to proceed on schedule, and there was a tincture of defensiveness in the air as conference participants dismissed the growing...

(The entire section is 9846 words.)

Frances Olsen (essay date December 1999)

SOURCE: Olsen, Frances. “The Outsider.” American Lawyer 21, no. 11 (December 1999): 93, 153.

[In the following essay, Olsen presents an overview of MacKinnon's life and body of work.]

Not since the 1890 Harvard Law Review article by Charles Warren and Louis Brandeis initiated the cause of action for violation of privacy has an author been as closely identified with a new cause of action as Catharine MacKinnon has been with sexual harassment.

MacKinnon, who now holds a J.D. and a Ph.D. degree in political science, was a student at Yale when sexual harassment cases first arose in the 1970s. To some feminist attorneys, it seemed self-evident...

(The entire section is 937 words.)

Denise Schaeffer (essay date September 2001)

SOURCE: Schaeffer, Denise. “Feminism and Liberalism Reconsidered: The Case of Catharine MacKinnon.” American Political Science Review 95, no. 3 (September 2001): 699-708.

[In the following essay, Schaeffer argues that certain aspects of MacKinnon's feminist theory must be understood within a liberal framework.]

Feminist theory has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the incompleteness of unreconstructed liberalism for addressing all aspects of human life. But the view that liberalism and feminism are incompatible has become widespread, especially among radical feminists who reject liberalism for offering women “a piece of the pie as currently and...

(The entire section is 9221 words.)

Further Reading


Bader, Eleanor J. Review of Feminism Unmodified, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Humanist 49, no. 1 (January-February 1989): 41-2.

Bader asserts that the controversy surrounding Feminism Unmodified functions to spark debate on feminist issues.

Baer, Judith A. Review of Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. Journal of Politics 52, no. 3 (August 1990): 1010-13.

Baer offers a mixed assessment of Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.

Bart, Pauline B. Review of Feminism Unmodified, by Catharine A. MacKinnon. American Journal of...

(The entire section is 536 words.)