April 2005

Gena Anderson


Women's Lives Men's Laws by Catherine MacKinnon

Catherine MacKinnon, a Professor of Law and woman’s rights advocate, brings several decades worth of writing and speaking on the role of women in law together in this collection of essays. Women’s Lives Men’s Laws is a fascinating look at MacKinnon’s vision of what law could be if it supported, or God forbid, promoted the rights of women in the court system. In essays on myriad topics such as the equal rights amendment (ERA), color and gender, the evolution of sexual harassment laws, Brown vs. the Board of Education, and even animal rights, MacKinnon makes the same point over and over again -- that the law fails women, and change is too slow and not enough.

One of the main targets of MacKinnon is the U.S. Constitution, the document in which all laws today must be based on. When she writes about the Constitution, MacKinnon stresses the fallacy of equality -- specifically, that saying women and men are equal and should be treated as such fails to consider the unique role women play in society. Equality law rests on the idea that men and women be “similarly situated” and to say that we are is an impossibility, given the social structure of our culture. A woman’s experience, according to MacKinnon, should be considered different than that of a man’s, and should be reflected in our Constitution and our laws: “Sex equality as a legal concept has not traditionally been theorized to encompass issues of sexual assault or reproduction because equality theory has been written from men’s practice, not women’s.”

MacKinnon stresses the same points in many of her essays, and the language is a bit dry and difficult to get through if you have no knowledge of law, but the ideas and the passion for them is strong. The only thing over the top in the book was MacKinnon’s almost born-again hard line against pornography, which didn’t distinguish between pornography that is harmful and pornography that is not. To MacKinnon, all pornography is extremely harmful towards women and promotes their inequality:

Pornography sexualizes women’s inequality. It makes the inequality of women sexy. It sexualizes, most broadly speaking, dominance and submission. Every kind of woman is used, each one’s particular inequalities exploited as deemed sexually exciting.

Women’s Lives Men’s Laws shows how the law can give women power if they know how to use it to their advantage, and encourages women to improve the law by getting their experiences included in the making and interpreting of laws. Law should ideally be instrumental in, not exempt from, social change.

Women's Lives Men's Laws by Catherine MacKinnon
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
ISBN: 0674015401
558 Pages