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Catharine Alice MacKinnon was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1946. Her father George E. MacKinnon was a corporate lawyer active in republican politics, who served as a U.S. congressman, federal district attorney and circuit court judge. In 1969, MacKinnon earned her BA from Smith College, a private women’s college where her mother Elizabeth Valentine Davis had been a student 30 years before. MacKinnon went on to earn her JD and PhD from Yale Law School in 1979 and 1987, respectively. She has been a professor of law at the University of Michigan since 1989 and has been a visiting professor at NYU, Harvard, Chicago and at many other institutions in the United States and abroad.
MacKinnon is a central figure in feminist legal practice who came to prominence after successfully claiming that sexual harassment was a form of discrimination under Title IX. Title IX is a 1972 federal law originally designed to extend 1964 Civil Rights Act protections to female students and employees in K-12 schools and in higher education. MacKinnon's case, Alexander v. Yale (1980), established a legal recourse for women who had been penalized for refusing sexual advances.
In addition to winning this landmark case, MacKinnon won renown and drew controversy for developing an overarching theory of female sexual subordination and male dominance. Her dedication to the idea of a foundational, structural asymmetry of power between women and men is at the crux of her feminist critique of discrimination law and the legal campaigns she has waged against sexual violence and pornography.
MacKinnon is perhaps best known for her controversial position on pornography and for an often misquoted claim that a woman who has legally consented to sex may nevertheless be a victim of rape: In Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989) she wrote that “the unquestionable starting point has been that rape is defined as a distinct form of intercourse, while for women it is difficult to distinguish the two under conditions of male dominance.” Because of this claim she has famously been accused of asserting that all intercourse is rape.
MacKinnon's theory has become known as “dominance feminism” and is anchored in an understanding that current social relations are organized around the subordination of women to men. MacKinnon argues that sexual violence in the form of pornography, rape, prostitution, child sexual abuse and domestic violence is central to the maintenance of male power. In her view, this is a particularly insidious form of coercion and control because it is presented as a form of pleasure that appears consensual for both parties. Because this oppression is enforced through intimacy, women live in a state of subordination that is incredibly difficult to overcome because it is bound up with their sexual pleasure. Every attempt to undermine this sexual control, argues MacKinnon, is met with the apparently feminist argument that women should be able to enjoy sex free of moral disapprobation. As MacKinnon succinctly puts it, you cannot “argue with an orgasm.”
MacKinnon famously collaborated with feminist writer Andrea Dworkin on a campaign to legally frame pornography as a form of sex discrimination. The mere existence of pornography, they claimed, is a form of discrimination against all women through its valorization and eroticization of violence against them. More recently, MacKinnon has argued that pornography is a form of human trafficking. Her legal campaigns, launched in Minneapolis and Indianapolis, were met with fierce criticism by many feminists who accused Dworkin and MacKinnon of undermining the free speech crucial to women’s progress and forming a dangerous alliance with a repressive Christian right. From MacKinnon’s perspective, however, pornography functions as a mediatized threat of sexual violence that poses a significant barrier to women's free speech by normalizing their subordination and encouraging them to be silent about the very violence it depicts.
Some feminists have argued that “dominance feminism” – through its emphasis on oppression and sexual violence – unwittingly bolsters regressive feminine ideals, casting women as perpetual victims. By insisting that sexual relations are always relations of subordination, MacKinnon's critics argue, dominance feminism risks ignoring women’s sexual agency and pathologizing female sexual pleasure as a symptom of exploitation. According to this view, insisting that heterosexual relations are necessarily coercive would seem to preclude the possibility of sexual freedom and enjoyment that many feminists see as central to their project. Furthermore, they argue, MacKinnon infantilizes women by encouraging them to view themselves as subjects in need of the chivalrous intervention of the state.
MacKinnon’s argument though—reflected most clearly in her anti-pornography campaigns—is that women who are socialized as subordinates, and who are furthermore invested in male pleasure as a means of survival, are not capable of being the free sexual agents that third-wave feminists imagine. On the contrary, MacKinnon holds that it is impossible for women to make real progress within existing patriarchal sexual and material conditions. In this way, dominance feminism is a revolutionary theory, one that radically challenges the limits of our contemporary socio-sexual imagination.
Written by Rebecca H. Lossin, Ph.D. candidate in Communications, Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University
"Catharine A. MacKinnon." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2009
Biography In Context, 2018
Emily Bazelon, “The Return of the Sex Wars,” The New York Times Magazine, September 25, 2015