From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?* By Catharine A. MacKinnon

Thanks to Noanodyne, I have recently learned that the text of this essay is already online for your reading pleasure! Oh, happy day!

PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ. As published in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, edited by Diane Bell and Renate Klein, Spinifex, 1996.

Please discuss below. I am copying a few comments from the previous post to this one, because they are specifically about C-Mac’s sweet essay.



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15 responses to “From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?* By Catharine A. MacKinnon

  1. Ok, on Catherine MacKinnon’s essay “From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?”:

    Unlike other women, the white woman who is not poor or working class or lesbian or Jewish or disabled or old or young does not share her oppression with any man. That does not make her condition any more definitive of the meaning of “women” than the condition of any other woman is. But trivializing her oppression, because it is not even potentially racist or class-biased or heterosexist or anti-Semitic, does define the meaning of being “anti-woman” with a special clarity. How the white woman is imagined and constructed and treated becomes a particularly sensitive indicator of the degree to which women, as such, are despised.

    TELL IT, C-Mac!! That about sums it up, sisters. White is AS GOOD AS IT GETS for women.

    To speak of social treatment “as a woman” is thus not to invoke any abstract essence or homogeneous generic or ideal type, not to posit anything, far less a universal anything, but to refer to this diverse and pervasive concrete material reality of social meanings and practices such that, in the words of Richard Rorty, “a woman is not yet the name of a way of being human…

    Women are TREATED similarly (as women) by the EXTERNAL world. It’s not INSIDE, it’s OUTSIDE!!

    Feminism was a practice long before it was a theory. On its real level, the Women’s Movement—where women move against their determinants as women—remains more practice than theory. This distinguishes it from academic feminism. For women in the world, the gap between theory and practice is the gap between practice and theory. We know things with our lives, and live that knowledge, beyond anything any theory has yet theorized.

    Oh sisters, we have WORK to do!! Our REALITY is being erased EVERY DAY, all the time.

  2. Honestly, I am terrified to discuss the white woman problem that C-Mac mentions above, though I find it incredibly important and worthy of discussion. But I will say that I think the same KIND of revulsion is directed at “femininity” and “feminine” women, as if femininity were NOT central to female oppression. If you are feminine, you have no legitimate claim to feminism. Just as if you are white woman you have no valid claim to oppression.

    • radfemcrafts

      If you are feminine, you have no legitimate claim to feminism. Just as if you are white woman you have no valid claim to oppression.

      I think I hear what you’re saying. Like MacKinnon summarizes at the end of the essay that if woman without qualifiers isn’t a victim because it doesn’t suit patriarchal society to talk about the ontological victim, woman–then talking about the ontological victim, woman, whose markers of lowered status (femininity) are visible on her sleeve is even less desirable.

      It is suitable to male-identified culture to teach that woman without qualifiers is an oppressor and not the oppressed, and I think you’re right that the logical conclusion of that thinking is that if a woman without qualifiers is an oppressor then the symbols of her oppression morph into symbols of what male-identifieds consider her oppressor status.

  3. Sex equality as a legal concept has not traditionally been theorized to encompass issues of sexual assault or reproduction because equality theory has been written out of men’s practice, not women’s. Men’s experiences of group-based subordination have not centered on sexual and reproductive abuse, although they include instances of it. Some men have been hurt in these ways, but they are few and are not usually regarded as hurt because they are men, but in spite of it or in derogation of it. Few men are, sexually and reproductively speaking, “similarly situated” to women but treated better. So sexuality and reproduction are not regarded as equality issues in the traditional approach.(3)

    Notions of legal EQUALITY are completely lacking the sex-based reality of impregnation and reproduction as experienced by females. 4th WAVE.

  4. To do theory in its conventional abstract way, as many do, is to import the assumption that all women are the same or they are not women. What makes them women is their fit within the abstraction “woman” or their conformity to a fixed, posited female essence. The consequence is to reproduce dominance.

    Oh look, queer theory has arrived! And yes, we see dominance reproducing itself.

  5. C-MAC quoting DB:

    De Beauvoir, explaining why women are second class citizens, says:

    Here we have the key to the whole mystery. On the biological level a species is maintained only by creating life itself anew; but this creation results only in repeating the same Life in more individuals…Her [woman’s] misfortune is to have been biologically destined for the repetition of Life, when even in her own view Life does not carry within itself reasons for being, reasons that are more important than Life itself (de Beauvoir: 1971, p. 64).

    Here women are defined in terms of biological reproductive capacity. It is unclear exactly how any social organization of equality could change such an existential fact, far less how to argue that a social policy that institutionalized it could be sex discriminatory.

    • “Her [woman’s] misfortune is to have been biologically destined for the repetition of Life, when even in her own view Life does not carry within itself reasons for being, reasons that are more important than Life itself”

      An unhappy women should never have a child. Ambivalent repetition of Life is not right.

      I also don’t quite follow C-Mac through this part of the article, but I am *definitely* in favor of codifying legal protections for the biologically unique FUNCTIONS of the female body. Erasing or making invisible female reproductive vulnerability is NOT feminist, as far as I’m concerned.

  6. it is the way society punishes women for reproduction that creates women’s problems with reproduction, not reproduction itself.

    Yes, I agree. BUT. Reproduction itself, no matter how gently handled, is still arduous and dangerous to female health. We need to fix the way that society DEALS with reproduction. AND we need to ACCOUNT FOR the physical realities of reproduction. Does that make sense?

    • Absolutely that makes sense — we have to be able to talk realistically about pregnancy and child birth because those ARE women’s experiences. Society doesn’t cause fistulas or all the other hazards of carrying and giving birth to children. Waxing poetic about the how wonderful reproduction is isolates women who have had bad experiences or who don’t want to have that experience for whatever reason, but especially physical reasons. I can’t see why any feminists want to argue that reproduction is perfectly safe when the whole of women’s historical experience sits in refutation of that.

  7. radfemcrafts

    Glad you found it. I posted about it a couple days ago too.

  8. This approach to “what is a woman” is reminiscent of Sartre’s answer to the question “what is a Jew?” Start with the anti-Semite.(19)



    If our theory of what is “based on sex” makes gender out of actual social practices distinctively directed against women as women identify them, the problem that the critique of so-called “essentialism” exists to rectify ceases to exist. And this bridge, the one made from practice to theory, is not built on anyone’s back.

    PS. You can “reply” to any of these comments and it will nest below. Isn’t that nice?

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