[(review date May 1988) In the following review, Whitman outlines MacKinnon's feminist perspective of law, calling Feminism Unmodified a "rough, powerful, important work."]
In Feminism Unmodified, a collection of speeches given between 1981 and 1986, Catharine MacKinnon talks of law from the perspective of feminism. MacKinnon does not approach her topic as a lawyer with a uniquely legal perspective on feminism; she brings, instead, a distinctively feminist approach to law. Nor is the feminism from which she speaks grounded in the standard political theories: MacKinnon disclaims and attacks the Marxist approach to feminism, the socialist approach to feminism, and, most emphatically and repeatedly, the liberal approach to feminism that has been embraced by many lawyers in their effort to use law to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex. MacKinnon's goal is to define feminism on its own terms. That is what she means by "unmodified." This book both exemplifies and discusses the difficulty, and the considerable success, of her project. It is a rough, powerful, important work.
MacKinnon talks about law, and about the effect upon women of trying to talk in legal language. Although she herself is, in at least some of these essays, talking to lawyers, and although lawyers typically adopt a language of neutrality, MacKinnon herself makes no pretense of neutrality or disinterest. These are political speeches. They are concerned with the way law works as a system of power, a system that reinforces the supremacy of men over women. To adopt the language of law as if it represented not politics, but neutrality or a claim to a disinterested justice, would be to give up her claim from the beginning. It would cede to law the very status she contests. Yet the costs of MacKinnon's choice to talk about law from the standpoint of feminist politics--the personal and political costs, particularly the loss of credibility--are high. That is a chief theme of this book:
My work is considered not law by lawyers, not scholarship by academics, too practical by intellectuals, too intellectual by practitioners, and neither politics nor science by political scientists.... [A]s for me, I notice that law gives me some credibility, but that being woman-identified takes it away. The law gives male credibility; female identification erases it.[pp. 132-33]
How do you persuade as a feminist lawyer? Must you choose between a language of neutrality, which provides credibility but disables you from saying those things you most need to say, and a feminist language, which allows you to say those things at the cost of being believed? In MacKinnon's view, a central tactic of male supremacy is to deny credibility to women who speak as women. The central task of feminism is, in the face of this, to articulate a woman's point of view. The law has responded to the voice of the disempowered in the past. MacKinnon calls on it to do so once again.
The speeches in this collection build upon two earlier, more formal articles, both published in Signs....