Toward a Feminist Theory of the State
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Toward a Feminist Theory of the State

Catharine A. MacKinnon

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Toward a Feminist Theory of the State

Catharine A. MacKinnon

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Toward a Feminist Theory of the State presents Catharine MacKinnon's powerful analysis of politics, sexuality, and the law from the perspective of women. Using the debate over Marxism and feminism as a point of departure, MacKinnon develops a theory of gender centered on sexual subordination and applies it to the state. The result is an informed and compelling critique of inequality and a transformative vision of a direction for social change.

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1. The Problem of Marxism and Feminism
1. Some contemporary French feminist theorists have used the term desire in a variety of ways. See, e.g., Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa: Viewpoint,” trans. Kieth Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1 (Summer 1976): 857–893; works by Xavière Gauthier, Luce Irigaray, and Annie LeClerc in New French Feminisms: An Anthology, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980). For the most part, the term is not used concretely, as I do here, but abstractly and conceptually, as most clearly exposed in Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), which is about semiotics in language. My sense of the term is also to be clearly distinguished from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Viking Press, 1977), and Guy Hocquenghem, Homosexual Desire (London: Allison & Busby, 1978). They do not problematize desire as such, but rather its repression, not seeing either that its determinants are gendered or that its so-called repression is essential to its existence as they know it.
2. I know no nondegraded English verb that elides the distinction between rape and intercourse, love and violation, the way this term does. Further, there is no other verb for the activity of sexual intercourse that would allow a construction parallel to “I am working,” a phrase which could be applied to almost any activity that one considered to be work. Compared with work, sexuality is cabined off to the bedroom or the brothel. It is linguistically hermetic, creating the illusion that sexuality is a discrete activity rather than a mode or dimension of being which reaches throughout social life. This illusion of discreteness contributes to obscuring its pervasiveness. The lack of an active verb meaning “to act sexually” that envisions a woman’s action is a linguistic expression of the realities of male dominance.
3. John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, in Essays on Sex Equality, ed. Alice S. Rossi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 184–185.
4. Feminists have previously observed the importance of consciousness raising without seeing it as method in the way developed here. See Pamela Allen, Free Space: A Perspective on the Small Group in Women’s Liberation (New York: Times Change Press, 1970); Anuradha Bose, “Consciousness Raising,” in Mother Was Not a Person, ed. Margaret Anderson (Montreal: Content Publishing, 1972); Nancy McWilliams, “Contemporary Feminism, Consciousness-Raising, and Changing Views of the Political,” in Women in Politics, ed. Jane Jaquette (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974); Joan Cassell, A Group Called Women: Sisterhood and Symbolism in the Feminist Movement (New York: David McKay, 1977); and Nancy Hartsock, “Fundamental Feminism: Process and Perspective,” Quest: A Feminist Quarterly 2 (Fall 1975): 67–80.
5. Rosa Luxemburg, “Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle,” in Selected Political Writings, ed. Dick Howard (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), pp. 219–220. It may or may not be true that women vote more conservatively than men on a conventional left–right spectrum. The suspicion that they do may have accounted for ambivalence of the left on women’s suffrage as much as any principled view of the role of a reform like suffrage in a politics of radical change. Conservatives, however, were not prominent in fighting for women’s right to vote.
6. Ibid., p. 220.
7. These observations have been complex and varied. Delia Davin, “Women in the Countryside of China,” in Women in Chinese Society, ed. Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974); Katie Curtin, Women in China (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975); Judith Stacey, “When Patriarchy Kowtows: The Significance of the Chinese Family Revolution for Feminist Theory,” Feminist Studies 2 (1975): 64–112; Julia Kristeva, About Chinese Women (New York: Urizen Books, 1977); Hilda Scott, Does Socialism Liberate Women? Experiences from Eastern Europe (Boston: Beacon Press, 1974); Margaret Randall, Cuban Women Now (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1974) (an edited collection of Cuban women’s own observations) and Cuban Women Now: Afterword (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1974); Carollee Bengelsdorf and Alice Hageman, “Emerging from Underdevelopment: Women and Work in Cuba,” in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah Eisenstein (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979).
8. Barbara Ehrenreich, “What Is Socialist Feminism?” WIN (Women’s International Network) News, June 3, 1976; reprinted in Working Papers on Socialism and Feminism (Chicago: New American Movement, n.d.).
9. Susan Brownmiller, quoted in Batya Weinbaum, The Curious Courtship of Women’s Liberation and Socialism (Boston: South End Press, 1978), p. 7.
10. Stacey, “When Patriarchy Kowtows”; Janet Salaff and Judith Merkle, “Women and Revolution: The Lessons of the Soviet Union and China,” Socialist Revolution 1, no. 4 (1970): 39–72; Linda Gordon, The Fourth Mountain (Cambridge, Mass.: Working Papers, 1973); Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 392–421.
11. Fidel Castro, “The New Role for Women in Cuban Society,” in Linda Jenness, Women and the Cuban Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970); but of his “Speech at Closing Session of the 2nd Congress of the Federation of Cuban Women,” Nov. 29, 1974, Cuba Review 4 (December 1974): 17–23. Stephanie Urdang, A Revolution within a Revolution: Women in Guinea-Bissau (Boston: New England Free Press, n.d.). This is the general position taken by official documents of the Chinese revolution, as collected by Elisabeth Croll, ed., The Women’s Movement in China: A Selection of Readings, 1949–1973, Modern China Series, no. 6 (London: Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute, 1974). Mao Tse-tung recognized a distinctive domination of women by men (see discussion by Stuart Schram, The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung [New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969], p. 257), but interpretations of his thought throughout the revolution saw issues of sex as bourgeois deviation (see Croll, pp. 19, 22, 32). The Leninist view which the latter documents seem to reflect is expressed in Clara Zetkin’s account, “Lenin on the Woman Question,” excerpted as an appendix in The Woman Question: Selections from the Writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin (New York: International Publishers, 1951), p. 89. Friedrich Engels implies a simultaneous or directly consequential transformation of the status of women with changes in relations of production; Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, ed. Eleanor Burke Leacock (New York: International Publishers, 1972) (hereafter cited as Origin). See Chapter 2.
12. See Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday/Anchor, 1984).
13. Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History: Rediscovering Women in History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (New York: Random House, 1973); Mary Jo Buhle, “Women and the Socialist Party, 1901–1914,” in From Feminism to Liberation, ed. Edith Hoshino Altbach (London: Schenkman, 1971); Robert Shaffer, “Women in the Communist Party, USA, 1930–1940,” Socialist Review 45 (May–June 1979): 73–118. Contemporary attempts to create socialist-feminist groups and strategies are exemplified in position papers: Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, “Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement” (Mimeograph, Chicago, 1972); “The ‘Principles of Unity’ of the Berkeley-Oakland Women’s Union,” Socialist Revolution 4 (January–March 1974): 69–82; Lavender and Red Union, The Political Perspective of the Lavender and Red Union (Los Angeles: Fanshen Printing Collective, 1975). Rosalind Petchesky, “Dissolving the Hyphen: A Report on Marxist-Feminist Groups 1–5,” in Eisenstein, Capitalist Patriarchy, pp. 373–389; and Red Apple Collective, “Women’s Unions and Socialist Feminism,” Quest: A Feminist Quarterly 4 (Summer 1977): 88–96, reflect on this process.
14. A wide variety of marxist approaches converge on this point. See Juliet Mitchell, Woman’s Estate (New York: Random House, 1971); Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance, and Revolution: A History of Women and Revolution in the Modern World (New York: Random House, 1972); Zillah Eisenstein, “Some Notes on the Relations of Capitalist Patriarchy,” in Eisenstein, Capitalist Patriarchy, pp. 41–55; Eli Zaretsky, “Socialism and Feminism III: Socialist Politics and the Family,” Socialist Revolution 4 (January–March 1974): 83–99; idem, “Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life,” ibid. 3 (January–April 1973): 69–126; idem, “Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, Part 2,” ibid. (May–June 1973): 19–70; Virginia Held, “Marx, Sex, and the Transformation of Society,” in Women and Philosophy: Toward a Theory of Liberation, ed. Carol C. Gould and Marx W. Wartofsky (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1976), pp. 168–184; Mihailo Marković, “Women’s Liberation and Human Emancipation,” ibid., pp. 145–167; Hal Draper, “Marx and Engels on Women’s Liberation,” in Female Liberation, ed. Roberta Salper (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), pp. 83–107.
15. Nancy Hartsock, “Feminist Theory and the Development of Revolutionary Strategy,” in Eisenstein, Capitalist Patriarchy, p. 37.
16. This tendency, with important variations, is manifest in writings otherwise as diverse as Charnie Guettel, Marxism and Feminism (Toronto: Canadian Women’s Education Press, 1974); Mary Alice Waters, “Are Feminism and Socialism Related?” in Feminism and Socialism, ed. Linda Jenness (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), pp. 18–26; Weather Underground, Prairie Fire (Underground, U.S.A.: Red Dragon Collective, 1975); Marjorie King, “Cuba’s Attack on Women’s Second Shift, 1974–1976,” Latin American Perspectives 4 (Winter–Spring 1977): 106–119; Al Syzmanski, “The Socialization of Women’s Oppression: A Marxist Theory of the Changing Position of Women in Advanced Capitalist Society,” Insurgent Sociologist 6 (Winter 1976): 31–58; “The Political Economy of Women,” Review of Radical Political Economics 4 (July 1972). See also Selma James, Women, th...

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Citation styles for Toward a Feminist Theory of the State
APA 6 Citation
MacKinnon, C. (1991). Toward a Feminist Theory of the State ([edition unavailable]). Harvard University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 1991)
Chicago Citation
MacKinnon, Catharine. (1991) 1991. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. [Edition unavailable]. Harvard University Press.
Harvard Citation
MacKinnon, C. (1991) Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. [edition unavailable]. Harvard University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
MacKinnon, Catharine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. [edition unavailable]. Harvard University Press, 1991. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.