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Catharine Alice MacKinnon (born October 7, 1946) is an Americanmarker feminist, scholar, lawyer, teacher and activist.


MacKinnon was born into an upper-class family in Minnesota. Her mother is Elizabeth Valentine Davis; her father, George E. MacKinnon was a lawyer, congressman (1946 to 1949), and judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (1969 to 1995). She also has two younger brothers.

MacKinnon was the valedictorian of her high school and thereafter became the third generation of her family to attend her mother's alma mater, Smith Collegemarker. She graduated at the top 2% of her class at Smith and moved on to receive her J.D. and Ph.D. from Yale Universitymarker. She was the recipient of a National Science Foundation fellowship while at Yale Law School.

MacKinnon was engaged to Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson for several years during the 1980s and 1990s, though the relationship subsequently ended. She has refused to discuss the relationship in later interviews.

MacKinnon is the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law Schoolmarker. In 2007, she served as the Roscoe Pound Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law Schoolmarker.

MacKinnon is one of the most highly cited legal scholars in the English language. She has frequently been a visiting professor at other universities and regularly appears in public speaking events. On February 10, 2005, MacKinnon attended the premier of Inside Deep Throat (in which she is interviewed) and took part in a panel discussion after the film. On April 29, 2009, MacKinnon argued on the radio show Intelligence Squared U.S. for the proposition "It Is Wrong To Pay For Sex?".

Ideas and activism

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

resigned after being refused a transfer when she complained of her supervisor's harassing behavior, and who was denied unemployment benefits because she quit for 'personal' reasons. It was at a consciousness-raising session about this and other women's workplace experiences that the term sexual harassment was first coined.

In 1977, MacKinnon graduated from Yale Law School after having written a paper on the topic of sexual harassment for Professor Thomas I. Emerson. Two years later, MacKinnon 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 her book, MacKinnon argued that sexual harassment is sex discrimination because the act reinforces the social inequality of women to men (see, for example, pp. 116-18, 174). She distinguishes between two types of sexual harassment (see pp. 32-42): 1) "quid pro quo," meaning sexual harassment "in which sexual compliance is exchanged, or proposed to be exchanged, for an employment opportunity (p. 32)" and 2) the type of harassment that "arises when sexual harassment is a persistent condition of work (p. 32)." 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. § 1604.11(a)).

In 1986, the Supreme Court held in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that sexual harassment may violate laws against sex discrimination. In Meritor, the Court also recognized the distinction between quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work place harassment. Wrote MacKinnon in a 2002 article: "'Without question,' then-Justice Rehnquist wrote for a unanimous Court, 'when a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate's sex, that supervisor "discriminate[s]" on the basis of sex.' The D.C. Circuit, and women, had won. A new common law rule was established."

MacKinnon's book Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination is the eighth most-cited American legal book published since 1978, according to a study published by Fred Shapiro in January 2000.


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 (Brownmiller 337).

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 Minneapolismarker 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, Indianamarker, 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, Massachusettsmarker (1985) and Bellingham, Washingtonmarker (1988) to pass versions of the ordinance by voter initiative.

MacKinnon also wrote in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review in 1985:
And as you think about the assumption of consent that follows women into pornography, look closely some time for the skinned knees, the bruises, the welts from the whippings, the scratches, the gashes. Many of them are not simulated. One relatively soft core pornography model said, "I knew the pose was right when it hurt." It certainly seems important to the audiences that the events in the pornography be real. For this reason, pornography becomes a motive for murder, as in "snuff" films in which someone is tortured to death to make a sex film. They exist."

MacKinnon represented Linda Susan Boreman (better known under her stage name of Linda Lovelace) from 1980 until her death in 2002.

Civil libertarians frequently find MacKinnon's theories objectionable (see "Criticisms" section). They have also argued that that there is no evidence that sexually explicit media encourages or promotes violence against, or other measurable harm of, women.

International work

In February 1992, the Supreme Court of Canadamarker largely accepted MacKinnon's theories of equality, hate propaganda, and pornography, citing extensively from a brief she co-authored in a ruling against Manitobamarker pornography distributor Donald Butler.

The Butler 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.

MacKinnon has represented Bosnian and Croatian women against Serbs accused of genocide since 1992. She was co-counsel, representing named plaintiff S. Kadic, in the lawsuit Kadic v. Karadzic and won a jury verdict of $745 million in New York City on August 10, 2000. The lawsuit (under the United States' Alien Tort Statute) also established forced prostitution and forced impregnation as legally actionable acts of genocide. In MacKinnon’s view, traditional approaches to human rights gloss over abuses specific to women (e.g., sexual violence), both in wartime and peacetime.

MacKinnon has also worked to change laws, or their interpretation and application in Mexico, Japan, Israel, and India. In 2001, MacKinnon was named co-director of the Lawyers Alliance for Women (LAW) Project, an initiative of Equality Now, an international non-governmental organization.

Political theory

MacKinnon's work largely focuses on the meaning of equality in law and life. Traditional equality employed the Aristotelian notion of equality--that is, the treatment of likes alike, unlikes unalike. MacKinnon believes that this fails to recognize that subordination of groups and existing hierarchy in society results in differences perceived as natural. The law, or other groups with power, then justifies distinctions based on these differences. In MacKinnon's theories, the opposite of equality is not difference but hierarchy as social constructs. "Equality thus requires promoting equality of status for historically subordinated groups, dismantling group hierarchy." In MacKinnon's view, this requires a substantive approach to equality jurisprudence in its examination of hierarchy, whereas before, abstract notions of equality sufficed.

MacKinnon writes about the interrelations between theory and practice, recognizing that women's experiences have, for the most part, been ignored in both arenas. Furthermore, she uses Marxism to critique certain points in feminist theory and uses feminism to criticize Marxist theory.

MacKinnon understands epistemology as theories of knowing and politics as theories of power. She explains, "Having power means, among other things, that when someone says, 'this is how it is,' it is taken as being that way. . . . Powerlessness means that when you say 'this is how it is,' it is not taken as being that way. This makes articulating silence, perceiving the presence of absence, believing those who have been socially stripped of credibility, critically contextualizing what passes for simple fact, necessary to the epistemology of a politics of the powerless."

In 1996, Fred Shapiro calculated that "Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence," 8 Signs 635 (1983), was the 96th most cited article in law reviews even though it was published in a nonlegal journal.


During the so-called "Feminist Sex Wars" in the 1980s, feminists opposing anti-pornography/happiness stances, such as Ellen Willis and Carole Vance, began referring to themselves as "pro-sex" or "sex-positive feminists". Sex positive feminists and anti-pornography feminists have debated over the implicit and explicit meanings of these labels. Sex-positive feminists claimed that anti-pornography ordinances contrived by MacKinnon and Dworkin called for the removal, censorship, or control over sexually explicit material. The "sex wars" resulted in the feminist movement being split into two opposing camps over questions about pornography, consent, sexual freedom, and the relationship of free speech to equality.

Anti-pornography ordinances authored by MacKinnon and Dworkin in the United States sought for harm against victims, in relation to pornography, to be made actionable. Soon afterwards, obscenity laws passed in Canada (1985), and books and materials that fell under the new definition of pornography were removed. The Canadian Supreme Court decision R. v. Butler (1992), which upheld these laws, drew heavily on MacKinnon's arguments that pornography is a form of sex discrimination. MacKinnon has written in support of this trend in Canadian anti-pornography law, though at the same time, holding that Canada should abandon traditional obscenity law entirely in favor of a civil rights approach. She has also distanced herself from the selective enforcement of Canadian obscenity law against gays and lesbians, holding that anti-pornography laws should make no distinction between gay and heterosexual pornography.


  • Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination (1979) ISBN 0-300-02299-9
  • Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (1987) ISBN 0-674-29874-8
  • Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women's Equality (1988) ISBN 0-9621849-0-X
  • Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989) ISBN 0-674-89646-7
  • Only Words (1993) ISBN 0-674-63933-2
  • (co-editor) In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings, edited by C. A. MacKinnon and A. Dworkin (1997) ISBN 0-674-44579-1
  • Women's Lives, Men's Laws (2005) ISBN 0-674-01540-1
  • Are Women Human?: And Other International Dialogues. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2006 (currently a nominee for the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year.)

For a more complete list, see listing.

Court cases

Related cases

See also


  1. "Are women human?" by Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, April 12, 2006.
  2. University of Michigan faculty biography
  3. Harvard webpage 2007
  4. ISI Highly Cited Author - Catharine A. MacKinnon
  5. Catharine MacKinnon 2005 Fellow of Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences
  6. Academic look at 'Deep Throat' by Charles McGrath, 2005-02-09 alt URL
  7. 'Deep Throat': When Naughty Was Nice by Tina Brown, 2005-02-10, alt URL
  8. Is It Wrong To Pay For Sex? 2009-04-29
  9. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Points Against Postmodernism, 75 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 687, 687-88 (2000).
  10. Frances Olsen, Feminist Theory in Grand Style, 89 Colum. L. Rev. 1147, 1147 & n.4 (1989) (citing Conversation with Professor Nadine Taub, attorney with Rutgers Legal Clinic who litigated early sexual harassment cases (July 1985) and MacKinnon's book at page xi).
  11. Catharine A. MacKinnon, "The Logic of Experience: Reflections on the Development of Sexual Harassment Law," 90 Geo. L.J. 813, 824 (2002).
  12. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Pornography, Civil Rights, and Speech, 20 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 1 (1985). For support to her claim that snuff films exist, MacKinnon cited in footnote 61: "In the movies known as snuff films, victims sometimes are actually murdered."' 130 Cong. Rec. S13192 (daily ed. Oct. 3, 1984)(statement of Senator Specter introducing the Pornography Victims Protection Act). Information on the subject is understandably hard to get. See People v. Douglas, Felony Complaint No. NF 8300382 (Municipal Court, Orange County, Cal. Aug. 5, 1983); "'Slain Teens Needed Jobs, Tried Porn"' and "Two Accused of Murder in 'Snuff' Films" Oakland Tribune, Aug. 6, 1983 (on file with Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review); L. Smith, The Chicken Hawks (1975)(unpublished manuscript)(on file with Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review).
  13. Dworkin, Ronald. "Women and Pornography", New York Review of Books 40, no. 17 (21 October 1993): 299. " reputable study has concluded that pornography is a significant cause of sexual crime: many of them conclude, on the contrary, that the causes of violent personality lie mainly in childhood"
  14. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989)
  15. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Pornography, Civil Rights, and Speech, 20 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 1, 3 & n.2 (1985)
  16. Fred R. Shapiro, "The Most-Cited Law Review Articles Revisited," 71 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 751 (1996)
  17. Carol Vance, More Pleasure, More Danger: A Decade after the Barnard Sexuality Conference, in Pleasure and Danger: Towards a Politics of Sexuality (Carol Vance, ed., 1984).
  18. Catharine A. MacKinnon, In Harm's Way (1997).
  19. Catharine A. MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, Statement By Catharine A. Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin regarding Canadian Customs and legal approaches to pornography (1994).

External links


By MacKinnon

Criticism of MacKinnon

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