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.

The True Nature

Meg profileVeganism is about, primarily, non-exploitation. Making it about the animals is like making feminism about the females. Not only does it maintain and enforce the separation and hierarchy of us and them – it creates a victim group, leaving little room for a perception of the true nature of anyone involved.
– Meg Graney

Thank you, Meg, for that thought for today, and…happy birthday!