Catharine MacKinnon

Catharine A. MacKinnon

Gosh, where does one begin? Catharine Alice MacKinnon is an American feminist, scholar, lawyer, teacher and activist. MacKinnon's ideas may be divided into three central -- though overlapping and ongoing -- areas of focus: (1) sexual harassment, (2) pornography, and (3) international law. She has also devoted attention to social and political theory and methodology.

Sexual Harassment
According to an article published by Deborah Dinner in the March/April 2006 issue of Legal Affairs, MacKinnon first became interested in issues concerning sexual harassment when she heard that an administrative assistant at Cornell University had resigned after being refused a transfer when she complained of sexual harassment from her supervisor. The woman was also refused employment insurance benefits because she had quit for "personal reasons". While at Yale Law School in the mid-1970's, MacKinnon wrote a paper on the topic of sexual harassment and later, she published Sexual Harassment of Working Women, arguing that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and any other sex discrimination prohibition. In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission followed MacKinnon's framework in adopting guidelines prohibiting sexual harassment by prohibiting both quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment (see 29 C.F.R. ยง 1604.11(a)).

As one of the most vocal anti-pornography voices of the 1980s, MacKinnon is perhaps best known as the scorn of civil libertarians everywhere. In 1980, Linda Boreman (who had appeared in the pornographic film Deep Throat as "Linda Lovelace") stated that her ex-husband Chuck Traynor had violently coerced her into making Deep Throat and other pornographic films. Boreman made her charges public for the press corps at a press conference, together with MacKinnon, members of Women Against Pornography, and feminist writer Andrea Dworkin offering statements in support. After the press conference, Dworkin, MacKinnon, Gloria Steinem, and Boreman began discussing the possibility of using federal civil rights law to seek damages from Traynor and the makers of Deep Throat. Linda Boreman was interested, but backed off after Steinem discovered that the statute of limitations for a possible suit had passed.

MacKinnon and Dworkin, however, continued to discuss civil rights litigation as a possible approach to combatting pornography. MacKinnon opposed traditional arguments against pornography based on the idea of morality or sexual innocence, as well as the use of traditional criminal obscenity law to suppress pornography. Instead of condemning pornography for violating "community standards" of sexual decency or modesty, they characterized pornography as a form of sex discrimination, and sought to give women the right to seek damages under civil rights law. In 1983, the Minneapolis city government hired MacKinnon and Dworkin to draft an antipornography civil rights ordinance as an amendment to the Minneapolis city civil rights ordinance. The amendment defined pornography as a civil rights violation against women, and allowed women who claimed harm from pornography to sue the producers and distributors for damages in civil court. The law was passed twice by the Minneapolis city council but vetoed by the mayor. Another version of the ordinance passed in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1984. This ordinance was ruled unconstitutional by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. MacKinnon continued to support the civil rights approach in her writing and activism, and supported anti-pornography feminists who organized later campaigns in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1985) and Bellingham, Washington (1988) to pass versions of the ordinance by voter initiative.

Civil libertarians frequently find MacKinnon's theories objectionable. It has been claimed that there is no evidence that sexually explicit media encourages or promotes violence against, or other measurable harm of, women.

International Law
Poor Catharine MacKinnon is also blamed for ramant censorship by Canada Customs, particularly agains LGBT literature. In February 1992, the Supreme Court of Canada largely accepted MacKinnon's theories of equality, hate propaganda, and pornography, citing extensively from a brief she co-authored in a ruling against Manitoba pornography distributor Donald Butler. This decision was controversial; it is sometimes implied that shipments of Dworkin's book Pornography were seized by Canadian customs agents under this ruling, as well as books by Marguerite Duras and David Leavitt; the books were indeed seized by customs, but not as a consequence of Butler. Successful Butler prosecutions have been undertaken against the lesbian sadomasochistic magazine Bad Attitude, as well as the owners of a gay and lesbian bookstore for selling it. Canadian authorities have also raided an art gallery and confiscated controversial paintings depicting child abuse. Many free speech and gay rights activists allege the law is selectively enforced, targeting the LGBT community.

Deborah Dinner has wirtten a careful and compassionate criticism of MacKinnon's work in a 2006 article for Legal Affars. It can be found here.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. (1989). "Privacy v. Equality". Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
A theoretical legal treatise from activist attorney MacKinnon, co-author of the controversial Dworkin-MacKinnon anti-pornography civil rights ordinance. She begins with a discussion of feminism and Marxism, because (as she explains) the latter is the only contemporary political tradition to confront organized social dominance as a dynamic. She goes on to analyze feminist method (consciousness-raising) and the knowledge it reveals; and what she calls feminism unmodified (radical feminism) as a post-Marxist methodology. She explores issues of sexuality/gender and how they contribute to women's oppression and the role of the liberal state in promoting it. Revealing, closely reasoned, densely written, this is not easy reading, but sure to be hotly debated among academicians and intellectuals. For university libraries. ~ Reed Business Information, Inc.

The single most important book in the new jurisprudence...It is, in my opinion, the only book in legal theory produced in the twentieth century which can rank with H. L. A. Hart's "The Concept of Law" (1961). Both change the framework arid transform the paradigm of the theoretical debate. All discourse within the framework of liberal legal theory has had to place itself in relationship to the ideas and theories of Hart. All feminist legal theory, likewise, must place itself in reference to the writings of MacKinnon. Her work, however, is much more significant than that of Hart, because her perspective has the potential of social revolution. ~ Canadian Bar Review