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Feminism seeks to empower women on our own terms – from Catharine MacKinnon, “Not By Law Alone,” in Feminism Unmodified

Critics of feminism from the Right have often painted all feminist demands in terms of liberal feminist claims for equity (for example, in the workplace), and caricatured those demands as a liberal demands that women simply become like men—the women’s own desires, the particularities of women’s lives, the needs of the family, and anything else that gets in the way be damned. Critics of feminism from the Left have often portrayed all feminist demands in terms of radical feminist opposition to sexual harassment, prostitution, pornography, and other objections to the sexualized denigration of women, and caricatured those demands as little more than kill-joy Right-wing puritanism, dressed up in progressive clothing. Catharine MacKinnon has argued that this double-bind may simply be the result of the male Right and the male Left’s inability to see any issue except on men’s terms, and so mistake feminist opposition to the Right as liberalism and feminist opposition to the Left as reaction. Consider, for example, how she illustrates her points of agreement, and conflict, with liberalism and conservatism—and draws out the vital importance of understanding feminism on its own terms, on women’s terms instead of men’s terms—in Not by Law Alone:

I speak as a feminist, although not all feminists agree with everything I say. Mrs. Schlafly speaks as a conservative. She and I see a similar world, but we portray it differently. We see similar facts but have very different explanations and evaluations of those facts.

We both see substantial differences between the situations of women and of men. She interprets the distinctions as natural or individual. I see them as fundamentally social. She sees them as inevitable or just—or perhaps inevitable therefore just—either as good and to be accepted or individually overcomeable with enough will and application. I see women’s situation as unjust, contingent, and imposed.

In order to speak of women as a feminist, I need first to correct Mrs. Schlafly’s impression of the women’s movement. Feminism is not, as she implicitly defines it, liberalism applied to women. Her attack on the women’s movement profoundly misconstrues feminism. Her critique of the women’s movement is an artifact, an application, of her long-standing critique of liberalism, just as her attack on the ERA is an artifact of her opposition to the federal government. Women as such are incidental, a subplot, not central, either to liberalism or to her critique. Liberalism defines equality as sameness. It is comparative. To know if you are equal, you have to be equal to somebody who sets the standard you compare yourself with. According to this approach, gender difference is the evil of women’s situation because it enforces the nonsameness of women and men. Feminism—drawing from socialist feminism lessons about class and privilege, from lesbian feminism lessons about sexuality, from the feminism of women of color lessons about racism and self-respecting communities of resistance—does not define equality this way. To feminism, equality means the aspiration to eradicate not gender differentiation, but gender hierarchy.

We stand for an end to enforced subordination, limited options, and social powerlessness—on the basis of sex, among other things. Differentiation, to feminism, is just one strategy in keeping women down. Liberalism has been subversive for us in that it signals that we have the audacity to compare ourselves with men, to measure ourselves by male standards, on male terms. We do seek access to the male world. We do criticize our exclusion from male pursuits. But liberalism limits us in a way feminism does not. We also criticize male pursuits from women’s point of view, from the standpoint of our social experience as women.

Feminism seeks to empower women on our own terms. To value what women have always done as well as to allow us to do everything else. We seek not only to be valued as who we are, but to have access to the process of definition of value itself. In this way, our demand for access becomes also a demand for change.

Put another way, Mrs. Schlafly and I both argue that in a sense, women are not persons, but but with very different meanings. When the right affirms women as women, it affirms woman’s body as a determinant of woman’s existing role, which it sees as her rightful place. Feminists criticize the social disparities between the sexes that not only exclude women from personhood as that has been defined, that noy only distort woman’s body and mind inseparably, but also define personhood in ways that are repugnant to us. Existing society’s image of a person never has represented or encompassed what we, as women, with women’s experience, either have had access to or aspire to.

Mrs. Schlafly opposes feminism, the Equal Rights Amendment, and basic change in women’s condition, as if the central goal of the women’s movement were to impose a gender-free society, as if we defined equality as sameness. This is not accurate. Our issue is not the gender difference but the difference gender makes, the social meaning imposed upon our bodies—what it means to be a woman or a man is a social process and, as such, is subject to change. Feminists do not seek sameness with men. We more criticize what men have made of themselves and the world that we, too, inhabit. We do not seek dominance over men. To us it is a male notion that power means someone must dominate. We seek a transformation in the terms and conditions of power itself.

—Catharine MacKinnon, from Not by Law Alone: From a Debate with Phyllis Schlafly (1982), reprinted in Feminism Unmodified (1987), pp. 21-23.

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