Catharine A. MacKinnon

Catharine A. MacKinnon Biography

Activist, Women's Rights Activist, Educator, Lawyer (1946–)
Lawyer and feminist Catharine A. MacKinnon established the legal claim that sexual harassment is sex discrimination.


Catharine A. MacKinnon was born on October 7, 1946, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She earned a bachelor's degree from Smith College in 1969. In 1977, she graduated with her J.D. from Yale Law School. She published her first book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, in 1979. In 1986, the Supreme Court agreed with her argument that sexual harassment is sex discrimination. MacKinnon earned her Ph.D. in political science from Yale University the following year. Over the years, she taught at such law schools as the University of Michigan and Harvard University, and focused much of her work on international women's rights. MacKinnon's recent books include Women's Lives, Men's Laws (2005) and Are Women Human? (2006).

Early Life and Career

Born on October 7, 1946, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Catharine Alice MacKinnon is a leading feminist lawyer and theorist. She is the daughter of George MacKinnon, a Republican congressman and a judge. In 1969, MacKinnon graduated from Smith College, where she studied government. She continued her studies at Yale Law School, earning her J.D. degree in 1977. Staying on at Yale, MacKinnon worked on a doctorate degree in political science, which she completed in 1987.

During her student years, MacKinnon became active in numerous causes. She published her first book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, in 1979. In this work, MacKinnon argued that sexual harassment was a form of discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court didn't officially rule on this issue until 1986, siding with MacKinnon's opinion.

A Leading Feminist

In the 1980s, MacKinnon joined with Andrea Dworkin in the fight against pornography. Both women supported the idea that pornography was a violation of women's civil rights. Together they tried to get legislation passed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, declaring pornography as a type of sex discrimination in 1983. They also worked on a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of porn star Linda Lovelace, who claimed that she had been forced into making pornography.

MacKinnon continued to explore women's rights issues in such works as Feminism Unmodified (1987) and Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989). With 1993's Only Words, she argued against the idea of pornography as a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

Over the years, MacKinnon has used civil lawsuits to advance awareness and social change. She helped expand the legal definition of genocide to include the crimes of forced prostitution and rape with her victory in Kadic v. Karadzic. In this case, MacKinnon represented Bosnian and Croatian women in their suit against Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic. A jury awarded the plaintiffs in the case $745 million in damages in 2000.

In Recent Years

MacKinnon continues to be an author, activist and educator. Some of her recent publications include Women's Lives, Men's Laws (2005) and Are Women Human? (2006). From 2008 to 2013, MacKinnon served as special gender adviser to the prosecutor of the International Crime Court at the Hague.

For much of her career, MacKinnon has been a controversial yet respected figure in academic circles. She is the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, where she has taught such classes as "Evolution of Gender Crimes" and "Sex Equality." During part of 2013 and 2014, MacKinnon had a visiting professorship at Harvard University, where she tackled topics like "Prostitution: The Criticial Questions."

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