Toward a Feminist Theory of the State

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Toward a Feminist Theory of the State
Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (book).jpg
Cover of Toward a Feminist Theory of State
Author Catharine MacKinnon
Subject Feminism, political philosophy
Publisher Harvard University Press
Publication date
Pages 330
ISBN 978-0-674-89645-1
OCLC 19589567

Toward a Feminist Theory of the State is an influential work of feminist political theory written by Catharine MacKinnon in 1989.


MacKinnon argues that feminism had "no account of male power as an ordered yet deranged whole"; that is, a systematic account of the structural organization whereby male dominance is instantiated and enforced. Although earlier writers, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Simone de Beauvoir, had offered "a rich description of the variables and locales of sexism," they had not produced a general theory of structural exploitation based on sex-based hierarchy.

MacKinnon proposes Toward a Feminist Theory of the State[1] as an answer to this perceived problem. MacKinnon takes Marxism as the theory's point of departure, arguing that unlike liberal theories, Marxism "confronts organized social dominance, analyzes it in dynamic rather than static terms, identifies social forces that systematically shape social imperatives, and seeks to explain social freedom both within and against history." She elaborates:

MacKinnon rejects social reform that proceeds through pluralistic models of liberalism: "To proliferate 'feminisms' in the face of women's diversity is the latest attempt of liberal pluralism to evade the challenge women's reality poses to theory, simply because the theoretical forms those realities demand have yet to be created."

From this basis, MacKinnon attempts to synthesize a feminist theory of exploitation rooted in sexual asymmetry with a Marxist account of exploitation based on class struggle, yielding new perspectives on rape, abortion, and pornography.

According to MacKinnon, "Abortion opponents and proponents share a tacit assumption that women significantly control sex," that sexual intercourse is "coequally determined," without taking into account the overall context of non-consent, subordination, and violence within which intercourse commonly occurs. For instance, rape, according to MacKinnon, "is adjudicated not according to the power or the force that a man yields, but according to indices of intimacy between the parties." Hence, the reality of women's unequal power is negated merely by the status of an intimate relationship, a relationship formulated within a context of inequality.


Academic Reviews[edit]

Though highly influential, MacKinnon's work received a mixed reaction in the academic community. Criticism has broadly been leveled in three categories: MacKinnon's theory (1) mischaracterizes or misunderstands liberalism, (2) reduces all vectors of oppression into sex-hierarchy, or (3) conflates womanhood with victimization without offering a strategy of resistance.

Emily Calhoun writes that many readers, including Calhoun herself, "simply do not see domination rooted in sexuality as the central problem for women, especially to the exclusion or minimization of problems of equality, problems of the freedom to engage with others, [and] problems of individual growth." More deeply, Calhoun concludes, "By rejecting persuasive methodologies simply because they have been used to secure the assent of women to the male experience and viewpoint, MacKinnon ultimately dooms her enterprise."[3] Jill Vickers accuses MacKinnon of failing to subject her theory to her own critique; that is, of not taking into account the plurality of contexts within which sexism occurs, thereby "globalizing and naturalizing the worst features of her own society."[4] Likewise, Zillah Eisenstein writes that MacKinnon's "analysis of male power and the state appears overly determined and homogenous," ignoring that "liberal feminism has uncovered its own limitations via its own critiques of women of color, radical feminism, and so on."[5] Michael Meyer suggests that MacKinnon's critique of liberalism "indulges in overgeneralizations and clearly fails to address the diversity and complexity of liberal perspectives. She fails to engage with Ronald Dworkin's extensive, and well-known, discussion of this very issue."[6]

Prominent queer theorist Judith Butler penned a harsh critique of MacKinnon's work, writing, "MacKinnon insists that feminism does not require prioritizing of oppressions, and that 'male domination' or 'patriarchy' must be construed as the systemic and founding source of oppression for women. And though this may appear true for some economically advantaged white women, to universalize this presumption is to effect a set of erasures, to cover over or 'subordinate' women who 'are' sites of competing oppressions, and to legislate through a kind of theoretical imperialism feminist priorities that have produced resistances and factionalizations of various kinds." Hence, Butler indicts MacKinnon as a "theological, imperializing Subject."[7] Similarly, Linda Nicholson rejects the homogenizing simplification of "women as a single entity," effectively erasing women who are not "white, Western, and middle-class."[8] In addition, Carrie Menkel-Meadow accuses MacKinnon of holding "tenaciously to an essentialist position," and of undertaking a "remarkably heterosexist analysis."[9] Kathryn Abrams echoes this critique, arguing that MacKinnon assimilates Native American women into a "cross-cultural constant" that is "solipsistic and even manipulative." In addition, Abrams calls MacKinnon's dominance theory "relentlessly removed from practical concerns."[10] Neil MacCormick detects "cultural imperialism" in MacKinnon's account of the law, wherein a "flat universality" of the United States occludes all other perspectives.[11]

Drucilla Cornell argues that MacKinnon's "reduction of feminine sexual difference to victimization ultimately cannot sustain a feminist theory of the state." According to Cornell, MacKinnon reduces "feminine sexuality to being a 'fuckee,'" thereby reproducing the very "sexual shame" she had to intended to eliminate.[12] Ruth Colker raises a similar concern, interpreting MacKinnon as "equating society with male domination." Because women cannot step outside society, they cannot step outside their subordination, and hence MacKinnon forecloses the possibility of resistance.[13]

Laura Robinson praises the book's "intriguing theoretical insights," while expressing concern that MacKinnon "simplifies all sex acts as rape."[14] Judith Baer writes that Toward a Feminist Theory of the State "establishes MacKinnon as the preeminent figure within the scholarly subfield of feminist jurisprudence," though she takes issue with MacKinnon's assertion that The First Amendment protects pornography that "teaches men to degrade and dehumanize women . . . Of course, it does not; constitutional doctrine puts obscene material outside the scope of freedom of expression and explicitly includes the preservation of individual morality among the state's legitimate concerns."[15]

In Sex and Social Justice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum accepts MacKinnon's critique of abstract liberalism, assimilating the salience of history and context of group hierarchy and subordination, but concludes that this appeal is rooted in liberalism rather than a critique of it. "Liberal philosophers," Nussbaum argues, "have rejected the purely formal notion of equality. Liberals standardly grant that the equality of opportunity that individuals have a right to demand from their government has material prerequisites, and that these prerequisites may vary depending on one's situation in society." Nussbaum points at that John Rawls, among the most prominent liberal philosophers of the twentieth century, provides "ample resources" to consider contextual hierarchy.[16]

Popular Press[edit]

Reviews in the popular press were similarly mixed.

Writing for The Nation, Wendy Brown laments MacKinnon's "profoundly static world view and undemocratic, perhaps even anti-democratic, political sensibility." Brown calls the work "flatly dated," developed at "the dawn of feminism's second wave," and "framed by a political-intellectual context that no longer exists--a male Marxist monopoly on radical social discourse."[17]

In contrast, second-wave feminist Gloria Steinem declared, "By exposing and correcting the patriarchal values underlying nationalism and justice, Catharine MacKinnon causes an earthquake in our thinking that rearranges every part of our intellectual landscape."[18]


  1. ^ MacKinnon, Catharine A. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
  2. ^ Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Google Books. Retrieved 19 June 2014
  3. ^ Calhoun, Emily M. "Re: Toward a Feminist Theory of the State." Frontier: A Journal of Women Studies 11.2 (1990): 120-121.
  4. ^ Vickers, Jill. "Re: Toward a Feminist Theory of the State." Canadian Journal of Political Science 23.1 (1990): 185-186.
  5. ^ Eisenstein, Zillah. "Re: Toward a Feminist Theory of the State." The American Political Science Review 84.2 (1990): 635-637.
  6. ^ Meyer, Michael J. "Re: Toward a Feminist Theory of the State." Ethics 101.4 (1991): 881-883.
  7. ^ Butler, Judith. "Disorderly Woman." Transitions 53.1 (1991): 86-95.
  8. ^ Nicholson, Linda. "A Radical's Odyssey." The Women's Review of Books 7.3 (1989): 11-12.
  9. ^ Menkel-Meadow, Carrie. "Re: Toward a Feminist Theory of the State." Signs 16.3 (1991): 603-606.
  10. ^ Abrams, Kathryn. "Re: Feminist Lawyering and Legal Method." Law & Social Inquiry 16.2 (1991): 373-404.
  11. ^ MacCormick, Neil. "Re: Law, State, and Feminism: MacKinnon's Theses Considered." Law and Philosophy 10.4 (1991): 447-452.
  12. ^ Cornell, Drucilla. "Re: Sexual Difference, the Feminine, and Equivalency: A Critique of Catharine MacKinnon's Toward a Feminist Theory of the State." The Yale Law Journal 100.7 (1991): 2247-2275.
  13. ^ Colker, Ruth. "Re: Feminist Consciousness and the State: A Basis for Cautious Optimism." Columbia Law Review 90.4 (1990): 1146-1170.
  14. ^ Robinson, Laura M. "Re: Toward a Feminist Theory of the State." The Canadian Journal of Sociology 18.1 (1993): 103-105.
  15. ^ Baer, Judith A. "Re: Toward a Feminist Theory of the State." The Journal of Politics 52.3 (1990): 1010-1013.
  16. ^ Nussbaum, Martha C. Sex & Social Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. pp. 55-80.
  17. ^ Brown, Wendy. "Consciousness Razing." January 8, 1990.
  18. ^ Steinem, Gloria. Quoted at the University of Oklahoma