Catharine A. MacKinnon is the 2022 recipient of the American Philosophical Society’s Henry M. Phillips Prize in Jurisprudence. A longtime visiting professor at Harvard Law School and professor at the University of Michigan Law School, MacKinnon is only the 26th winner of the prize since it was first awarded in 1895. A scholar, lawyer, and activist on sex equality issues under domestic and international law, MacKinnon pioneered the legal claim for sexual harassment as sex discrimination in employment and education, framed the harms of pornography as civil rights violations, proposed the Swedish model to abolish prostitution, conceived with clients and first established legal recognition of rape as an act of genocide, and is among the most widely cited legal scholars in the English language, among many other accomplishments.
Harvard Law Today interviewed MacKinnon by email about receiving the Phillips Prize, the status of the causes she has spent her career fighting for, the unpredictable synergy between law and activism, and the pleasures of teaching and learning from students, “always fresh, always an inspiration.”
Harvard Law Today: What is the significance to you of receiving this award?
Catharine MacKinnon: It affirms that dominant power does not control everything: it is not necessary to kowtow or cave in or trim your principles or compromise your vision to succeed. The work of most who have received this recognition previously — I am only the third woman — has been far more conventional than mine, often progressive but not directed toward basic change. Hopefully, more women, and more agents of fundamental critique and change, will be represented among its future recipients.
HLT: The American Philosophical Society was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin for the purpose of “promoting useful knowledge.” How does that fit with your own thinking about the power and purpose of law and legal theory?
MacKinnon: The Phillips Prize formulation of the values it recognizes is very comfortable to me. Henry M. Phillips was a practicing lawyer — as I am, and few legal academics are. Law is always real, in that its theories — apart from some by legal academics on a flight from reality — are always forms of practice. Law and social life are inter-permeable. So, when I teach or innovate a legal subject, the social reality of that subject is central. Law will be used, so knowledge about it should be, in Ben Franklin’s sense, useful.
HLT: Early in your career you pioneered the legal claim for sexual harassment as sex discrimination. In 2018, you wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times that the #MeToo movement had done what sexual harassment law could not. How do you think about the relation between law and activism?
MacKinnon: That is the headline the New York Times wrongly gave my piece. I said that #MeToo had done what the law so far HAD NOT DONE, building on what it had done so far, could yet do, and what the movement could never have done without it.
There is no general relation between law and activism, in my experience. Each issue, each time, has its own imperatives; you never step into the same river twice. When sexual harassment was first created as a legal claim, it did not really build on a social movement. The law preceded the movement to a considerable degree. There was the women’s movement, of course, and a couple groups working on the problem. But the law that was created then was not an outgrowth of that activism in the sense of pressure or momentum, although some of the work that was being done at that time inspired it. However, after 40 years of the law making actionable the abuses that set off #MeToo, and a concomitant public conversation about sexual interactions coerced by unequal power, that movement built on that law. #MeToo became the first global mass movement against sexual abuse in history. But this is just a description of these particular interactions. Every synergy between law and activism, on my observation, is distinct, specific, particular to time, place, people, and issue. There is no process model except persistence, imagination, listening, and grit. Effectiveness has no formula.
HLT: Where do the causes for which you have fought for most of your life stand today?
MacKinnon: Having started fighting against white supremacy, the fight for people of color has advanced admirably at great cost but is under severe attack in this country. I don’t actually think the fight against misogyny has gained that much ground, given that society is ever more permeated with pornography and its documented harms, prostitution is ever more normalized, so sexual abuse of children is ongoing, rape and sexual harassment remain endemic. What has moved is younger people who resist and see sexual atrocities and gender hierarchy for what they are, as not what sexual freedom or liberation means. The understanding that these issues of structural inequality are inextricably intersectionally connected has grown. Most of us probably will never see a shift in class-based inequality, despite or because of its imbrication with race and sex.
HLT: What do you see as the future of feminism?
MacKinnon: The future of feminism lies in the hearts and minds of women and girls, all of them, in their sense of self-respect and identification in solidarity with others, and in and with some men and boys and many trans and nonbinary people as well, which is where it has always been.
HLT: What are you working on now?
MacKinnon: I am continuing to work on everything I have always worked on; I don’t move on: creating some new legal arguments (watch this space), representing clients in edgy cases, participating in litigation and legislation and back-channels around the world as usual.
HLT: What has changed most in your time as a teacher?
MacKinnon: Honestly, what has changed the most in the decades I have taught law is the number of students who tell me that they have been sexually assaulted, all genders and sexualities and ethnicities (although young women of color most of all), and the increasing severity of those assaults, including the participation of pornography in them, and the recognition by the students of how they have been harmed by these attacks. It could be only that more are telling me, but I doubt it. That little is typically done has not changed.
HLT: Students must be excited to get to study with you. What do you get out of teaching and working with students?
MacKinnon: I am excited to be part of their path, and for them to be part of mine. It is ever enlivening to see how the students approach issues, think about cases, express their concerns and visions, tell their stories, interact with equality materials in new ways. They are always fresh, always an inspiration. Knowing you never know where anything you do in teaching will go, that it grows with them, belongs to them not you, is its special magic.