Revisiting MacKinnon’s “Of Mice and Men”

Catharine A. MacKinnon, Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, specializes in equality issues under international and constitutional law. MacKinnon pioneered the legal claim for sexual harassment, establishing it before the U.S. Supreme Court, and secured legal recognition of rape as an act of genocide.

In the 2004 essay “Of Mice and Men: A Feminist Fragment on Animal Rights,” Catharine MacKinnon explored the connection between misogyny and animal exploitation. MacKinnon’s book chapter continues to influence the way I understand animal liberation as the call for nonhuman animals to live on their own terms.

Our social norms signify that the integrity of nonhuman bodies does not matter. As female people have often been defined and valued in terms of the use of their bodies and their reproductive functions, feminism has a message for all liberationists.

Where is human disregard for other animals obvious? “The place to look for this bottom line,” writes MacKinnon, “is the farm, the stockyard, the slaughterhouse.”

Where is human disregard for other animals more subtle? For nonhumans and for women, Professor MacKinnon notes, the “denial of social hierarchy…is further supported by verbiage about love and protection” as though it mitigates the domination.

To take a stand where such deeply-rooted exploitation could be successfully challenged involves a journey deep into the psychology that leads to a human history of oppression and destruction.

A Unilateral Bargain

When we exert control over cats and dogs and horses, we pretend our vice is a virtue.

Maybe we don’t eat them, but they are nevertheless commodities, separated from their birth families at the discretion of buyers and sellers, to find comfort as long as their luck would keep them with people willing and able to feed and shelter them. At any time, the kind human owner might experience a reversal of fortune: family strife, divorce, illness, or death. Then what happens to these animals?

As for horses, many who pass their primes (or the primes of their owners) cannot evade the common chain of sale, resale or donation to charity, neglect, and finally slaughter. Horses die by the hundreds every year on racetracks, and still more die during vivisection on behalf of the racing industry. They’re subjected to other “sports” and sent into wars, ranching businesses, policing and social control.

Many people call the animals in their homes companions, even part of the family. But domestication was physically imposed upon the animal’s ancestors, their reproduction controlled over generations.

Once specific individuals are born into the human world, they need, and should receive, our protection and care. The point is that it was arrogant and violent to systematically turn wolves into dogs in the first place and caring does not mitigate that. What is true for women is true for wolves. Their rights must be on their own terms. As MacKinnon puts it: “Unless you change the structure of the power system you exercise, that you mean well may not save those you love.”

Crushing the Other

Pornography involving nonhuman animals is yet another appalling industry made possible by our systematic control over other beings. As MacKinnon writes, “Surely animals could be, and are, trained to make it appear that they are enjoying doing what people want them to do, including have sex with people.” But they have no way to opt out.

Then there’s the outright torture, such as that in crush videos. These and other examples of torture and killing of nonhuman animals have been defended on the grounds of artistic expression. As MacKinnon points out, similar arguments have been applied to defend imagery depicting the violent handling of women.

It is not surprising, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s placement of pornography into the “obscenity” category, that the debates focus on concerns over censorship. The real problem is the way we divide society into classes, perpetuating the use and humiliation of some by others. 

The best advocacy for nonhuman animals will serve as a model for respectful interaction between humans ourselves. But that doesn’t mean respect among humans is the only respect that matters. Lawmakers point out that violent treatment of nonhumans leads to desensitization, and then to violence against human beings. Such arguments imply that the abuse of nonhuman animals is taken seriously only insofar as intervention could potentially guard the human community from harm. That implication leaves human supremacy intact.

The Like-Us Trap

Some animal advocacy encourages popular interest in animal labs. The argument is that other animals have a lot in common with us, and we can prove it, so they should have some types of rights. Cognition studies are called non-invasive; yet the objects of analysis are detained, usually isolated. There is no sanctuary that can ever make up for their loss of freedom throughout their lives, while those who study them move up their career ladders — many being congratulated profusely for their published claims to have formed new bonds between humanity and other animals.

“[A]nimal rights are poised to develop first for a tiny elite, the direction in which the ‘like us’ analysis tends,” MacKinnon writes.

“[H]ow to avoid reducing animal rights to the rights of some people to speak for animals against the rights of other people to speak for the same animals needs further thought,” MacKinnon writes. Spot on. We’ve focused on who may suitably speak for owned nonhuman beings, rather than on how to withdraw from the habit of ownership itself.

When a chimpanzee died in an Atlanta laboratory after being used in HIV experiments, Professor Lawrence Tribe declared, “Clearly, Jerom was enslaved.” Tribe added that Jerom should have been treated “with respect” yet had no right to opt out of being enlisted “to save a human life, or achieve a higher goal.” The reporter who interviewed Tribe reassured readers: “In other words using chimps for medical research would remain possible.”

“People tend to remain fixated on what we want from them, to project humans onto animals, to look for and find or not find ourselves in them,” writes MacKinnon. The question for the animal rights theorist and activist is “what they want from us, if anything other than to be let alone, and what will it take to learn the answer.”

The Most Comprehensive Right

Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis said the right to be free of public curiosity was rooted in something deeper than what a study of property rights could reach. Justice Brandeis wrote that “the right to be let alone” is “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” [Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928) (dissenting).]

The right is valued not only by men, and not only by the civilized. 

Animal advocacy needs the filter MacKinnon’s feminist fragment provides. Much more work remains to be done before our society understands how the domination of any group affects all. Critically, animals are still property across the board. Serious animal advocacy, by working at the base of the hierarchy, will strengthen respect for all groups. We have something to teach all movements for social betterment, even though there are relatively few of us, so that we face great pressure to focus on “the animal question” specifically. The fewer theorists and activists are in this area, the more critical it is that we’re informed by (and inform) people who work in interrelated areas of social justice.

Love and liberation,


Photo credit: 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); by Coalition for the ICC via Flickr.

Is a Vegan Humanity Possible?

Life on Earth is getting stranger. When the vegans started out in 1944, they noticed that our population, even then, weighed heavily on the planet. In seventy years, we’ve gone from two to seven billion human beings, with the number of animals bred into existence to feed many of these people—the land animals alone!—numbering in the many tens of billions.

The easy thing to do is be pragmatic and figure other animals are losing their habitat forever as fast as we can grab it, that we are incorrigible domesticators, and that life is everywhere commodified, so the best we can do, given that other animals are always going to be in some sort of relationship with us, is to be as easy as possible on all the other animals we control.

And yet I feel sure a world with room for animal rights is a world that’s still possible. Our dominion will be overthrown at some point anyway. Should we exhaust our planet, the force of life will rearrange itself accordingly.

The question for us, then, is whether we want to swim with the tide—with conscious awareness. Whether we grasp that we—scared little primates with big weapons, as Harold Brown has called us—are not in charge of this planet; whether we acknowledge that our lives unfold within a bio-community; whether we value, and will strive to increase, our capacity to respect other communities on this Earth.

Animal law generally misses these questions. It’s become part of North American social and educational life, with the model often involving pressure for courts to recognize, as animal law professors tend to put it, other animals’ true value and special place in our homes. But to me the radical hope was expressed when law professor Catharine MacKinnon (in the 2004 essay “Of Mice and Men: A Feminist Fragment on Animal Rights”) called for a new way of understanding animal advocacy, observing that the primary model of animal rights to date “misses animals on their own terms.”

Vegans have risen to the occasion and refused to be consumers of animal commodities. This general opting-out is the broad base for dissolving the for-sale status of other animals, and (because being vegan isn’t just about what we don’t want) letting them thrive on their own terms in untamed spaces.

Consider the free-roaming horses. They, at least in the United States, are continually rounded up and auctioned off. Some have been trained as border guards, others for display in circus-like shows. Some have been sent to die. Many animal advocates are focused on closing horse-slaughtering plants. From the vegan perspective, confronting slaughter makes sense—but only as part of a broader, autonomy-seeking perspective.

Nor is the answer to impose birth control on free-roaming horses while cattle ranches expand.

There is a law—the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971—that set out to let free-roaming horses and burros do just that: roam free. It hasn’t worked out. What horse advocates need, I believe, is to link to a vegan ethic: the permanent boycott of flesh and dairy products so animal agribusiness doesn’t push these horses and burros off the land.

An enormous segment of the human economy is based on taking habitat out from under other animals, yet each one of us has the power to change this structure. What’s more, we all know and constantly encounter other people with this same potential. People can and do respond to reasoned optimism.

May we stay mindful of the ideal and strive for it, so that wolves, coyotes, horses, bison, deer, elk and moose may freely roam their habitats. So that bears flourish, bees flourish, and horses live freely on Chincoteague, Assateague, the western ranges…Nova Scotia and the Nemaiah Valley. So that no one is calling for roundups, because the products of cattle ranching are no longer in demand. So that jaguars, pronghorn, and nectar bats, humans as well, have the right to move across the face of the earth. So that Earth’s CO₂ balance is restored, its wildlands are recovering, its air and its waters are clean and clear. So that pesticides are things of the past and the only lethal traps, snares, birdcages, guns, fishing poles and spurs left in the world are in antique stores.

Love and liberation,