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Summary Article: MacKinnon, Catharine Alice from The U.S. Justice System: An Encyclopedia

Birth Date: October 7, 1946

Catharine Alice MacKinnon is a prominent legal scholar, feminist author, and political activist whose long-standing efforts to combat sexual harassment, pornography, and human trafficking through international legislation and litigation have made her a controversial figure. She became a tenured professor at the University of Michigan Law School in 1990 and has taught at Yale University, Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Osgoode Hall (Toronto), and the University of Basel (Switzerland). Currently MacKinnon is the Elizabeth A. Long professor of law at the University of Michigan Law school.

Born on October 7, 1946, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, MacKinnon is the daughter of Elizabeth Valentine Davis and George E. MacKinnon, a noted lawyer, congressman, and federal judge (on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit). She attended Smith College and then Yale Law School, where she earned her JD in 1977. MacKinnon was admitted to the Connecticut Bar and was later admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar as well. She returned to Yale University and earned a PhD in political science in 1987.

In her pathbreaking book Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination (1979), MacKinnon argued that sexual harassment of women in the workplace was a facet of the social inequality that man imposes on a woman and constituted a violation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to this view, harassment may occur when opportunities are offered to a woman in exchange for sexual favors (i.e., as a quid pro quo) or may arise in a hostile work environment characterized by jokes, comments, or behavior of a sexual or sexist nature. Although controversial at the time, MacKinnon’s framework has been adopted by both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its 1980 guidelines prohibiting sexual harassment and the U.S. Supreme Court in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986).

MacKinnon also began to argue that civil rights litigation could be used to combat pornography. She opposed relying on either simple moral arguments or traditional obscenity laws to suppress pornography. Instead, she sought to characterize pornography as a form of sex discrimination. This approach gained notoriety when MacKinnon came to the support of former sex performer Linda Boreman, who had become famous as “Linda Lovelace,” the star of the 1972 film Deep Throat. Boreman, whom MacKinnon represented until Boreman’s death in 2002, had become an outspoken opponent of pornography. In 1980 at a press conference with MacKinnon (and other major feminist figures, including Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin), Boreman claimed that her ex-husband had violently coerced her into performing sex acts on film. MacKinnon explored the possibility of using federal civil rights law to seek damages from the makers of Deep Throat; however, since the statute of limitations had lapsed, a successful suit was unlikely. Yet, Mac-Kinnon fought to give women harmed by pornography the right to seek damages under civil rights law. She elaborated her views in Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women’s Equality (1988), Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (1987), Only Words (1993), and In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings (1998), the latter book coedited with Dworkin.

In 1983 the city of Minneapolis hired MacKinnon and Dworkin to draft an anti-pornography amendment to the local civil rights ordinance. Their 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 amendment was passed twice by the Minneapolis City Council but was vetoed by the mayor. Indianapolis, Indiana, enacted a version of the ordinance in 1984, but it was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Some legal scholars as well as activists for freedom of speech and expression argued that such laws were plain censorship. Undeterred, activists inspired by MacKinnon and Dworkin’s work undertook campaigns in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1985), and Bellingham, Washington (1988), to pass versions of their antipornography ordinance by voter initiative. The ideas resonated across borders: when the Canadian Supreme Court upheld that country’s 1985 obscenity law in R. v. Butler (1992), the Court drew heavily on MacKinnon’s arguments that pornography is a form of sex discrimination.

MacKinnon has also sought to make her views on sexual exploitation and violence against women applicable in international human rights law. In the 1990s she represented Bosnian and Croatian women attempting to sue Serbs accused of genocide. As cocounsel in the suit Kadic v. Karadzic in August 2000, she won a jury verdict of $745 million. That lawsuit established forced prostitution and forced impregnation as legally actionable acts of genocide under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute. In 2001 MacKinnon was named codirector of the Lawyers Alliance for Women.

See also Obscenity and Pornography

Further Reading
  • MacKinnon, Catharine A. Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues. Harvard University Press Cambridge, 2007.
  • MacKinnon, Catharine A. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Harvard University Press Cambridge, 1994.
  • MacKinnon, Catharine A. Sex Equality. 2nd ed. Foundation Press Westbury, NY, 2007.
  • MacKinnon, Catharine A. Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination. Yale University Press New Haven, CT, 1979.
  • MacKinnon, Catharine A. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Harvard University Press Cambridge, 1989.
  • MacKinnon, Catharine A. Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws. Harvard University Press Cambridge, 2005.
  • MacKinnon, Catharine A., and Andrea Dworkin. Pornography. University of Minnesota Law School Minneapolis, 1983.
  • Patit Paban Mishra
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