Over the course of the last century, the gender equality movement has clearly accomplished great heights: women’s suffrage, improved access to education, better employment opportunities are among the many feminist achievements. At the same time, scholars and activists alike point out that gender disparity is far from being resolved. The aim of the present paper is to consider and evaluate the arguments put forward in two influential works on the matter.
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Despite their common theme, the two books adopt a fundamentally different approach to the subject. Whereas Dworkin provides a very personal and emotional account of how persisting inequality affects women’s lives, MacKinnon presents a conceptual analysis of the current approaches to gender equality. Dworkin’s book is a collection of her speeches, articles, and analyses of such topics as rape, domestic violence, prostitution, and pornography.
While she, for the most part, does not refer to statistics or other factual information, she nevertheless creates a powerful narrative: the tone that she adopts comes from her personal experience as a victim of violence against women (Dworkin 56-57). Apart from that, she also deconstructs such phenomena as pornography and prostitution to demonstrate how they affect women’s lives – for instance, through dehumanization and objectification (Dworkin 126-127).
Even though Dworkin’s emotional and powerful tone is a strength of her argument is also, paradoxically, it is its primary flaw. For the most part, the members of the dominant group – be it white people or men – are not ill-intentioned or evil people, even if there are system-wide and institutional deficiencies that benefit them. Thus, a civil rights advocate should aim to inform and recruit rather than attack. Besides, Dworkin’s analysis of pornography and prostitution is one-dimensional: even if they tend to perpetuate certain stereotypes and gender roles, Dworkin fails to take into account the sex-positive feminists’ view that these phenomena are, in fact, liberating rather than oppressing.
MacKinnon’s analysis, on the other hand, is far more conceptual and has several parallels to Iris Young’s examination of the five dimensions of oppression. She considers and, consequently, rejects the two predominant approaches to gender equality: what she calls sex equality and difference approaches (MacKinnon 149). The former implies that women are the same as men, and the latter, as the name suggests, that they are different yet should be equal.
However, she criticizes these approaches for failing to achieve true equality and for being based on patriarchal norms and customs (MacKinnon 148). Her solution is to eliminate what Young would call structural oppression through the dominance approach that deals with the distribution of power in society (MacKinnon 151).
While MacKinnon provides a brilliant analysis of gender inequality as a structural problem, her work, nevertheless, has an important shortcoming in that it offers few, if any, practical solutions. She calls for women to be included in social and cultural life, yet it is unclear what methods or platforms she envisions for this purpose. One can also say that, despite her calls for empowerment, she adopts an asking tone that somewhat weakens her arguments. For instance, she says “give women equal power” or “let what we say matter,” referring to some abstract audience that seems to be predominantly male (MacKinnon 156). Such a tone assigns a task of being passive recipients to women: that they need to be “given” power or permitted to say things.
Thus, Dworkin’s and MacKinnon’s analyses provide valuable insights as to how gender inequality manifests itself these days. Frequently, it is not through overt sexism but rather through systemic oppression that leaves women vulnerable to violence and voiceless and powerless in social matters.
Dworkin, Andrea. Life and Death, New York, New York: Free Press, 1997. Print.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. “Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination.” The Moral Foundations of Civil Rights. Ed. Robert K. Fullinwider and Claudia Mills. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1986. 144-158. Print.