[(review date October 1987) In the following review, Hein delineates the major thematic concerns of the essays collected in Feminism Unmodified.]
Catharine MacKinnon will be best known to readers of The Women's Review of Books for her work in feminist theory1 and, with Andrea Dworkin, for her legislative campaign against pornography. Ordinances proposed by Dworkin and MacKinnon narrowly missed becoming law in both Minneapolis and Indianapolis and, had they been approved, would have radically transformed the law around pornography. I believe that MacKinnon's most important contribution to feminism lies in this intermediate area between theory and activism. Her incisive legal scholarship and innovative interpretation of legal concepts are already beginning to have an impact upon the slowly moving tide of precedent. A dozen years ago, as MacKinnon pointed out in her earlier book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women (Yale University Press, 1979), no court had held that sexual harassment is sex discrimination and several had held that it is not. Her arguments, articulated in that book and the cases she litigated, have helped to change the climate of opinion.
Feminism Unmodified is a collection of occasional essays, "engaged works," originally delivered as speeches at law schools, university debates, professional conferences and public gatherings between 1981 and 1986. In them MacKinnon refines and articulates the legal concepts through which theory is brought to bear upon the concrete experience of women and men. The essays embrace a body of issues now identified as "women's concerns" and frequently discussed by feminists--sex discrimination, rape, battery and violence against women, harassment, abortion, pornography, women in sports. The choice of topics is obviously determined by the occasions on which the speeches were delivered, and the book lacks the dramatic coherence of MacKinnon's earlier work; but taken collectively the essays provide a consistent statement of her radical, or "unmodified," feminist position, and a corresponding critique of feminisms that are "modified"--marxist, socialist, or liberal. MacKinnon sees all of these as ultimately unsuccessful endeavors to extend male-centered theory to women's reality.
Modified feminisms, says MacKinnon, have failed to come up with an adequate theory of the state and so cannot imagine an alternative legal system conceived from women's perspective. Ironically her own strength seems to lie in her exquisite comprehension of the logic of the existing structure of American law and her ability to unmask its intent. She envisages ways to deflect the law along pathways that are innovative and likely to be beneficial to women without appearing to require revolutionary change. MacKinnon does not herself devise a feminist theory of the state or a new legal system. She does argue persuasively for jurisprudential reforms which if implemented would strike at the male bias that is as deeply embedded in current legal theory and practice as it is in the society that they reflect.
The chief merit of this book is its piecemeal approach to legal change; for revolution is not around the corner, and short of it, we cannot expect profound transformations in the social lives of...