THINKERS OF THE NINETIES: Catharine Mackinnon The feminist against freedom

She is one of America's most influential contemporary thinkers, eschewing the culture of freedom - where the powerful trample the powerless - for a new era of genuine equality. She can't write, but she sure can lecture. She has her enemies, but she has won at least an equal amount of support. Bryan Appleyard investigates the woman who is arguably her country's most trenchant sex warrior
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Freedom and equality are ideals in perpetual conflict. Freedom generates inequalities; equality restricts freedom. Yet both, variously defined, are seen as essential to the just, democratic society.

In global terms, recent history has made freedom the dominant partner. Communism was an attempt to impose equality and it failed catastrophically. It created a quasi-aristocracy of party members who could maintain their power, impose their version of equality, only by terror. The risk of such a society was too high a price to pay for equality. Freedom had to come first. Equality lost its absolute claim. It could not be demanded, imposed or even too closely defined; it could exist only as a vague, desirable possibility.

For many in the West, this was unacceptable. The ideal of equality was too important to be diluted. Freedom may make us rich, but it could also reward the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Groups that defined themselves as oppressed - women, racial minorities - argued that freedom unrestrained by equality had resulted in them being denied freedom. Feminism and various civil rights movements all amount to demands that present freedom must be restricted to attain future equality.

Catharine Mackinnon, professor of law at the University of Michigan, is currently the most influential advocate of equality. She is an extraordinary figure, inspiring devotion and abuse in equal quantities. Arguably she is the most powerful lawyer in the United States: because of her some lawyers believe feminism will be the most important force in legal debate for the next 25 years. She has inspired state laws against pornography - though they were later overturned as unconstitutional. She has helped to fight a $4m lawsuit against Penthouse because sex was demanded from one of its models and in 1986 she she won acceptance from the Supreme Court that sexual harassment was sex discrimination. Wherever the war between the sexes surfaces in American life, Mackinnon will be found.

She is emphatically not a liberal feminist. One of her books is entitled Towards a Feminist Theory of the State, indicating that she sees feminism as a doctrine of transformation rather then reform. Indeed, so hard-line are her views that she has been accused by some more moderate feminists of operating a "sexual double standard" in which sex is good for the man but automatically degrades the woman. A leading American judge, Richard A Posner, has said she "depicts the United States as a vast conspiracy of men to rape and terrorise women".

Such criticisms are fair in that Mackinnon does not hesitate to present her thought in sensational terms. One of her books begins with the apparent assumption that all women are raped and abused from childhood onwards. And this sensationalism is compounded by her appalling writing. She can scarcely construct a rhythmic sentence. Most of what she writes can easily be misread because of her clumsy syntax, and whole passages of her books are, even after numerous readings, incomprehensible. As a result, much of her popular influence springs not from her writing but from her many years as a visiting professor, delivering vivid, passionate lectures. Her speech seems to overcome the deficiencies of her prose.

Her importance as a contemporary thinker is undeniable. She is a true radical in that she sees the world from a perspective utterly different from that of the legal or political establishment.

Her thought was formed at Yale in the Seventies, when she joined the pioneers of the contemporary women's movement. By 1974 she had become convinced that the law did nothing to correct the inequalities endured by women. At that time she came across the case of Carmita Wood, a woman who resigned her job as a result of sexual harassment and was denied unemployment benefit on the basis that she left work for personal reasons.

The case, Mackinnon has said, "exploded in my mind". It encapsulated "everything the situation of women is really about - everything that the law of sex discrimination made it so difficult, if not impossible, to address. So I decided I would just design something."

Mackinnon rejects biological explanations of differences between men and women, insisting they are all socially determined. Equally, she rejects the liberal feminists' distinction between sex, which is biologically determined, and gender, which is socially determined. For her, social construction is the basis of sexual difference and this is imposed by force. "On the first day that matters," she has written, "dominance was achieved, probably by force."

As a result all institutions, legal and political, are infected. The implications of this are perhaps most clearly seen in her attack on pornography. This has been defended in the United States by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects freedom of expression. Free speech, however objectionable, however untrue, is guaranteed, and pornography, in these terms, is a form of speech.

But for Mackinnon pornography is an act. A rape simulated for a film is effectively the same as a real rape. This position at once exposes serious problems with the First Amendment. Child pornography, for example, is banned - but why does it escape the blanket guarantee of the Constitution? Because, some would say, it involves coercion and clear harm, whereas adult pornography is consensual and not provably harmful to the participant.

But Mackinnon sees the whole structure of pornography as coercive and unquestionably harmful in that it reinforces the subjugation, the inequality, of women. Pornography incites as surely as the flaming crosses of the Ku Klux Klan or the rhetoric of racism. Society, she says, is made of language, so the distinction between a vicious act and a vicious word, clearly embodied in the First Amendment, cannot be made.

The insistence on the purely social rather than biological reality of current sexual mores means that phenomena such as pornography are not predestined; they can be changed or eradicated completely. We are, after all, in control of our social destiny. This leads to a strong streak of Utopianism in Mackinnon's thought.

"In a society in which equality is a fact, not merely a word," she writes, "words of racial or sexual assault and humiliation will be nonsense syllables. Sex between people and things, human beings and pieces of paper, real men and unreal women, will be a turn-off. Artefacts of these abuses will reside under glass in museums next to the dinosaur skeletons." In other words, the lack of equality turns society into an abusive, coercive freak show. Equality cannot be diluted in the name of freedom because equality is the only freedom.

Contradictions abound in her work, probably because of the impatient deficiencies of her writing. For example, she insists that society is made of language, but then dreams of a day when equality becomes "merely a word".

Even her most conservative critic would have to acknowledge that a phenomenon as pervasive and disturbing as pornography does seem to be a symptom of some radical sickness in society. Her solutions, however, can seem shockingly authoritarian. It is difficult to imagine how the kind of Utopian equality of which she dreams could be imposed without an accompanying apparatus of totalitarian rigour.

But Mackinnon's importance lies not necessarily in the detail or the practicality of her thought. It lies in the way she has prised open a chink in the armour of the culture of freedom. That chink is the way freedom tends towards exclusivity, privilege and the systematic disadvantage of certain groups. Others, spotting the same weakness, have turned to religion or strict, conventional moral authority as a way of blunting the more brutal aspects of freedom. But Mackinnon and her followers turn instead to a new centrality for the concept of equality which will create "a context of repose into which thought can expand, an invitation that gives speech its shape, an opening to a new conversation."

6: Catharine Mackinnon

'There is a connection between the silence enforced on women, in which we are seen to love and choose our chains because they have been sexualised, and the noise of pornography that surrounds us ...'

CAREER: Catharine A Mackinnon began involvement with radical causes at Yale. In the Eighties she defined her thinking as a visiting professor at most of America's leading law schools. She led the fight for the legal claim of sexual harassment and, with Andrea Dworkin, she wrote laws that classified pornography as a human rights violation. Her ideas on equality have been accepted by the Supreme Court of Canada and she is working with Croatian and Muslim women demanding justice for Serbian sexual atrocities.

WORK: She produced her first book in 1979. She has since published Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, Towards a Feminist Theory of the State and, in 1994, Only Words.

LIFE: Mackinnon is 49 and has had what is described as a long-term fiance - Jeff Masson, a former psychoanalyst who wrote the book Against Therapy.

CRITICS: She inspires violent opposition, even from fellow feminists. She is accused of exaggeration and sensationalism, notably by saying that 38 per cent of American women are molested as girls. Her insistence on equality is frequently condemned as Stalinist.