[Jagger reviews Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, by Catharine MacKinnon.]
Catharine MacKinnon is best known as the legal architect, with Andrea Dworkin, of several controversial antipornography ordinances, one of which passed the City Council of Indianapolis in 1983 but finally was struck down by the Supreme Court in February 1986. In “Feminism Unmodified,” a collection of speeches delivered between 1981 and 1986, she elaborates the philosophy underlying her position on pornography, and on a variety of other issues such as rape, abortion, women's athletics, sexual harassment and the rights of Native American women. Her book offers an unorthodox but relentlessly consistent perspective on issues fundamental to feminism. It is passionate, brilliant, polemical and sectarian.
Ms. MacKinnon defends what is frequently called “radical feminism.” As the title of her book indicates, she believes this approach to be the only true or genuine feminism because it alone speaks for all women. Often she calls it simply “feminism.” She charges that other supposed versions of feminism, which she lumps together disparagingly as “liberal feminism,” have promoted only the interests of the relatively few privileged women while helping to conceal the abuse of the vast and silenced majority. For this reason, she denies that “liberal feminism” is really feminism at all and quotes with approval Ms. Dworkin's assertion, “If this is feminism, it deserves to die.”
A sophisticated theorist who avoids many mistakes common among other radical feminists, Ms. MacKinnon avoids biological determinism, refrains from universal generalizations about women and does not assume that all men are the enemy. Her position is grounded on a clear assertion of the primacy of the social over the biological; she notes race and class differences in the situation of the contemporary Western women who are her present focus, and she allows that men may be both feminized and feminist.
Fundamental to her radical feminism is the claim that gender is a system of dominance rather than of difference. Her point is not to emphasize the now familiar feminist distinction between sex and gender, according to which “sex” refers to nature, biology and maleness and femaleness whereas “gender” concerns culture, social norms and masculinity and feminity. Ms. MacKinnon regards this distinction as a liberal construction, and she especially wishes to deny that biological sex differences are the basis of gender differentiation; that view she attributes to liberal feminism. Expressing her commitment to the primacy of the social, Ms. MacKinnon asserts, by contrast, that gender dominance is the basis of sexual difference: “On the first day that matters, dominance was achieved, probably by force.” Men, the dominant gender, assumed the power to define both difference and “the difference gender makes.” Since current understandings of sexual difference are masculine constructions on many levels (though typically presented as objective discoveries), Ms. MacKinnon concludes that the biological and the social are inseparable in this area. Consequently, she tends to use “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. In her usage, the word “male” functions as “a social and political concept, not a...