Friday, October 2, 2020
Catharine MacKinnon's Sexual Harassment Work as Invention of a New Form of Common Law Legal Reasoning
Charles Barzun, Catharine MacKinnon and the Common Law
Few scholars have influenced an area of law more profoundly than Catharine MacKinnon. In Sexual Harassment of Working Women (1979), MacKinnon virtually invented the law of sexual harassment by arguing that it constitutes a form of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Her argument was in some ways quite radical. She argued, in effect, that sexual harassment was not what it appeared to be. Behavior that judges at the time had thought was explained by the particular desires (and lack thereof) of individuals was better understood as a form of social domination of women by men. Judges, she argued, had failed to see that such conduct was a form of oppression because the social and legal categories through which they interpreted it was itself the product of male power.
This argument is not your typical legal argument. It may not even seem like a legal argument at all. But this article explains why on one, but only one, model of legal reasoning, MacKinnon’s argument properly qualifies as a form of legal reasoning. Neither the rationalist nor the empiricist tradition of common-law adjudication can explain the rational force of her argument. But a third, holistic tradition of the common law captures its logic well. It does so because, like MacKinnon’s argument (but unlike the other two traditions), it treats judgments of fact and value as interdependent. This structural compatibility between MacKinnon’s argument about gender oppression, on the one hand, and the holistic tradition of the common law, on the other, has theoretical and practical implications. It not only tells us something about the nature of law; it also suggests that critical theorists (like MacKinnon) may have more resources within the common law tradition to make arguments in court than has been assumed.