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in other words, eliminate that dimension of our social experience, or we might
eliminate that dimension of group identity. Either of these courses has the effect
of eliminating our perception of the difference in question, whatever groups that
perception of difference de¬nes.
If, on the other hand, this simple, one-dimensional method of assessing
people is set aside in favour of a complex approach, one that is sensitive to the
differences between people and the different standards of evaluation required to
appreciate those differences fully, on their own terms, then the people in question
become incommensurable. Their inferiority as people can no longer be asserted,
their equality need no longer be sought, and some other explanation of women™s
predicament and its remedy must be found. Seeing people in complex terms is a
prerequisite to fully acknowledging their difference, actual or potential, natural
or socially created; yet seeing them in this way makes both their inferiority and
their equality inconceivable.
There is another danger in understanding discrimination as a matter of
inferiority, the resolution to which must lie in the pursuit of equality. As
MacKinnon herself warns, a society that con¬nes itself to redressing the prob-
lem of inferiority for any particular group of people by eliminating the difference
upon which the inferiority of those people is based, so as to establish their equal-
ity with their former superiors, merely displaces that inferiority onto another
group of people.122 To alter the identity of the victims of discrimination, or
the character of what they are denied, is to alter the location of discrimination,
not its nature or signi¬cance. In short, equality for some, or in some respects,
relocates rather than reduces inferiority. It might make the patterns of discrim-
ination in our society simpler, perhaps, or more ¬‚uid, but in the end it would
merely ¬nd new victims for old wrongs. As MacKinnon herself puts it, “if this
is feminism, it deserves to die.”123
If, for example, women™s inferiority was found to be a product of their
physical weakness, relative to men, in a society that valued physical strength,
members of that society might seek to reconstruct the existence of men and

122 Id. at 23 (“To us it is a male notion that power means that someone must dominate. We seek a
transformation in the terms and conditions of power itself”); 4 (“ . . . it is antithetical to what
women have learned and gained, by sacri¬ce chosen and unchosen, through sheer hanging on
by bloody ¬ngernails, to have the equality we fought for turned into equal access to the means
of exploitation, equal access to force with impunity, equal access to sex with the less powerful,
equal access to the privilege of irrelevance”); 31 (“The feminist question is not whether you,
as an individual woman, can escape women™s place, but whether it is socially necessary that
there will always be somebody in the position you, however temporarily, escaped from and
that someone will be a woman”).
123 Id. at 5.
74 equality

women so as to make the sexes equally strong. Alternatively, they might seek to
reconstruct the forms and practices of that society so as to end all reference to
strength. But in the former setting some would still be weak and hence inferior,
although they would no longer be predominantly women, and in the latter setting
some, probably women, would still be inferior, although inferiority would no
longer turn on weakness.
If we are concerned about a group of people as victims of inequality, we
cannot con¬ne our concern to the members of that group as long as other victims
of inequality exist unless, perhaps, we regard the limitation of our concern as a
necessary ¬rst step in a practical strategy for the removal of all inequality. If, on
the other hand, we are concerned only about the inequality of a certain group
of people, our concern must be explained in terms of those people, and what it
is about them that makes their inferiority, and not that of others, objectionable.
It cannot be explained in terms of a commitment to equality, which has, by
de¬nition, no preference for any particular group of people.
It is for this reason that MacKinnon pursues a theory of sex that is
subordination-based rather than a theory of subordination that is sex-based.
Her concern is with inequality generally, and her analysis is designed to apply
to all forms of inferiority and to all people who suffer it, whether in the shape
of sex, race, or class, and not to women alone.
Yet we cannot conceivably eliminate all inferiority and establish equality in
the manner that MacKinnon™s analysis calls for. To do so would be to eliminate
all difference between human beings insofar as they are evaluated in terms of
the simple, one-dimensional standards of assessment that make them commen-
surable. Even if this were conceivable as a practical matter, the effect would be
to make people social equals only by rendering them socially indistinguishable,
thereby negating the very respect for human difference on which most accounts
of egalitarianism are premised. The achievement of equality for women would
eliminate womanhood, a consequence that most, but perhaps not all, would
regard as highly unfortunate if not catastrophic. And it could not plausibly be
pursued as a way of eliminating hierarchy, except in a partial, incoherent form
that would merely redraw rather than redress the patterns of subordination in
our society.
The dif¬culties attendant on Catharine MacKinnon™s analysis, therefore, are
not a product of the context in which she has chosen to pursue the ideal of
equality, that of the disadvantage experienced by women of all kinds, but of the
ideal of equality itself. It follows that those dif¬culties extend to any analysis
of difference and dominance that shares that ideal. Recognition of this fact has
led writers such as Luce Irigaray to condemn the ideal of equality in language
very nearly as trenchant as MacKinnon™s own:

Even a vaguely rigorous analysis of claims to equality shows that they are justi¬ed at the
level of a super¬cial critique of culture, and utopian as a means to women™s liberation.
IV. Conclusion 75

The exploitation of women is based upon sexual difference, and can only be resolved
through sexual difference. Certain tendencies of the day, certain contemporary feminists,
are noisily demanding the neutralization of sex. That neutralization, if it were possible,
would correspond to the end of the human race. . . . Trying to suppress sexual difference
is to invite a genocide more radical than any destruction that has ever existed in History.
What is important, on the other hand, is de¬ning the values of belonging to a sex-speci¬c
genre.
Unless it goes through this stage, feminism may work towards the destruction of
women, and, more generally, of all values. Egalitarianism, in fact, sometimes expends
a lot of energy on rejecting certain positive values and chasing after nothing. Hence the
periodic crises, discouragement and regressions in women™s liberation movements, and
their ¬‚eeting inscription in History.124

Notwithstanding the limitations imposed on MacKinnon™s argument by its
reliance on the ideal of equality, however, at least two features of that argument
have undeniably succeeded in redrawing the boundaries of any subsequent anal-
ysis of sex discrimination that hopes to be comprehensive. First, MacKinnon™s
vigorous critique of the authenticity of the sexual divide as we know it has
signi¬cantly deepened the debate over sexual and other forms of human differ-
ence, so as to compel that debate to be conducted at the level at which our very
understanding of difference is constructed. She makes it clear that practices
of discrimination do not merely de¬ne certain social groups as inferior, but
actually help to constitute the understanding of those whom they de¬ne as infe-
rior.125 Consequently, in considering the position of women and other victims
of discrimination, answers to the question of human difference and its value
can no longer be assumed, or set aside as external to the problem of discrimina-
tion. MacKinnon™s analysis, through its exploration of the social construction
of sex in hierarchical form, renders incomplete the attempts of those who seek
to establish the ways in which certain presumptively valid forms of difference
ought to be respected and valued.126
Furthermore, MacKinnon™s acute ear for the experience of women as told
by women, and her correspondingly rich and attentive description of women™s
lives, is uncontested even by those who disagree with her theoretical analysis.127
Any rival account of women™s predicament will not re¬‚ect an adequate under-
standing of women™s lives if it neglects the empirical reality that MacKinnon
describes, although it must, of course, remain free to reject her interpretation

124 Luce Irigaray, “Equal or Different”, in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford,
1991), 32.
125 In MacKinnon™s view, of course, sex discrimination does not merely help to constitute women™s
identity; it de¬nes them utterly.
126 See, for example, Christine Littleton, “Reconstructing Sexual Equality”, 75 California Law
Review 1279 (1987); Iris Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, 1990);
Martha Minow, Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion and American Law (Ithaca,
N.Y., 1990).
127 See, for example, Drucilla Cornell, Beyond Accommodation, supra n. 7, at 116, 154, 166.
76 equality

of that reality as simply a condition of inferiority if it hopes to redeem the
position of women as women. In other words, for those who would go be-
yond MacKinnon™s analysis, it is at once necessary to respect her account of
women™s experience and to avoid understanding women solely in terms of that
experience, thus making any escape from it conditional on suppressing sexual
difference.
The challenge confronting those considering the issue of sex discrimina-
tion is to develop an analysis of women™s lives that fully captures women™s
experience of disadvantage, and its embodiment in their existence as women,
without embalming them in that experience. Women cannot be expected to seek
their redemption in ways that marginalize or neglect the truth of the lives they
lead, or to attend to that truth in ways that forestall their redemption. In other
words, it is essential that the analysis of sex discrimination not itself diminish
women, either in terms of the understanding it offers of the suffering they ex-
perience as women or in terms of the opportunity it presents for a redemption
that they can aspire to as women.
It is this challenge that Drucilla Cornell has taken up, in two books that draw
their immediate inspiration from the work of Luce Irigaray and other French
feminist thinkers.128 The ¬rst of these in particular, Beyond Accommodation,
seeks to build on Jacques Lacan™s psychoanalytic analysis of the social con-
struction of gender by developing what Cornell sees as the positive implications
of Jacques Derrida™s deconstruction of Lacan™s account of sex as a social and
psychic reality. Cornell™s feminism is intended, at least in part, to serve as a
rebuttal of MacKinnon™s analysis of women™s condition. However it is a re-
buttal that accepts rather than contradicts MacKinnon™s empirical description
of women™s degradation and its implications for the authenticity and value of
women™s present existence as women.129
The challenge that Cornell takes up, which she calls a central dilemma of
feminism, is framed by her at the outset of Beyond Accommodation:
If there is to be feminism at all, we must rely on a feminine “voice” and a feminine
“reality” that can be identi¬ed as such and correlated with the lives of actual women; and
yet at the same time all accounts of the feminine seem to reset the trap of rigid gender
identities, deny the real differences between women (white, heterosexual women are
repeatedly reminded of this danger by women of color and by lesbians) and re¬‚ect the
history of oppression and discrimination rather than an ideal or an ethical positioning to
the Other to which we can aspire.130

128 Drucilla Cornell, Beyond Accommodation, supra n. 7; The Philosophy of the Limit (New York,
1992). Beyond Accommodation sets out a feminist vision that is founded on the general theory
of The Philosophy of the Limit. Cornell uses this last phrase to describe her own reading of
deconstruction, or postmodernism: Beyond Accommodation, at 207 n. 1; The Philosophy of the
Limit, at 11. Like her, I use whichever term seems clearest in a particular setting.
129 Beyond Accommodation at 119“64; 116, 134, 141, 154, 166.
130 Id. at 3.
IV. Conclusion 77

To meet this challenge, and so overcome the dilemma she describes, Cornell
offers a theory of the feminine that sees sex as a psychic fact, formed by men™s
and women™s different entry into the realm of language. The sexual reality that
MacKinnon describes is, in Cornell™s view, constructed as a cultural text, a
text that can and must be deconstructed in favour of a new feminine reality, a
new approach to the writing of the feminine. In redescribing the feminine in
this way, as a site for deconstruction, Cornell seeks to give expression to those
dimensions of feminine experience that are now repressed into the unconscious
by their inexpressibility in language and culture. At the same time she seeks
to acknowledge their contingent status when expressed, and their capacity and
obligation to yield through further deconstruction to other dimensions of the
feminine, dimensions that they themselves would otherwise repress and render
inexpressible.
By these means Cornell hopes to af¬rm the possibility of a new vision of
feminine difference, a vision that is essential, she argues, if women™s lives are
not to be once again subordinated to masculine values. Yet, in the same structural
moment,131 she hopes to ensure the instability of that vision by continuing to
invoke the ethic and techniques used to destabilize its predecessor, thereby
preventing it or anything else from ever standing in as the unshakeable truth
of what it means to be a woman.132 Hers is a vision of the feminine that is
traced in explicitly utopian terms, suf¬ciently concrete and knowable to embody
the repressed language of women™s experience, yet suf¬ciently ¬‚exible and
indeterminate not to exclude any subsequent feminine language or narrative,
written on behalf of women as a whole or as the expression of particular women™s
experience. It is an approach, Cornell claims, that succeeds in resolving the
dilemma of feminism as she has framed it, one that acknowledges the reality of
women™s present subordination without endorsing its status as truth, one that
offers the opportunity of a new feminine reality without enclosing women in
its description, one that is at once there for women and not there to limit them.
Cornell offers women the possibility of both a new content to the feminine and
a new view of its status. As she puts it, hers is a feminism always modi¬ed,
forever engaged in a process of its own revision and reinvention.133

131 Cornell calls this moment of af¬rmation and disruption structural, to make clear that it does not
take place in time. It is a stage that cannot be surpassed: see Beyond Accommodation, supra n.
7, at 95, 107.
132 I have described Cornell™s af¬rmation of the feminine as a vision of feminine difference, but it
is important to note that she is committed to what she calls the remetaphorization rather than
the reconceptualization of the feminine. In brief, she believes that a metaphor acknowledges
and embodies its contingent status, while a concept does not. See the next chapter.
133 Drucilla Cornell, “The Doubly-Prized World: Myth, Allegory and the Feminine”, 75 Cornell
Law Review 644, at 687 (1990).
3
Difference




Underlying Catharine MacKinnon™s analysis of women™s present predicament is
the thesis that the difference between women and men as we know it is entirely
socially constructed, that women and men are by nature merely blank slates
upon which society has chosen to draw the patterns of sexual difference with
which we are familiar, and from which women suffer. There are two assumptions
implicit in this thesis: ¬rst, that freeing women from their present predicament
depends upon changing what women (and men) now are, and second, that what
is the product of society is amenable to such change while what is the product of
nature is not. For MacKinnon and many, perhaps most other feminists, these two
assumptions are relied upon in the service of egalitarian ends. We must change
what women now are so as to ensure that their qualities and characteristics
(and the lives that those qualities and characteristics make possible) are equal
to those of men.
Yet there is no necessary connection between belief in sexual equality and
the belief that the present character of sexual identity is a social construct that
must be changed if women are ever to ¬‚ourish, for it is perfectly possible to
believe that the present character of sexual identity can and must be changed
for reasons other than equality. It is perfectly possible, for example (or at least
so it is claimed), to believe that new and different forms of sexual identity must
be pursued for the sake of their very novelty and difference, for the sake of
the release that such fresh visions of sexual difference would provide from the
con¬nes of sexual identity as it has been laid down in the present forms and
practices of our society.
It is change of this kind that Drucilla Cornell seeks. Drawing on Continental
psychoanalytic traditions, and in particular on Jacques Derrida™s deconstruction
of Jacques Lacan™s re¬guring of Freud™s analysis of women™s lack, Cornell
argues that sexual identity as we know it is a fantasy, created for the bene¬t
of men and at the expense of women, the purpose of which is to conceal the
existence of the many possible alternatives to our present understanding of the
human condition, which if recognized would expose the inherent vulnerability
I. Introduction 79

and contingency of our status as human beings. Since this fantasy of sexual
identity is a social construct, it is amenable to change. And since it is by its very
de¬nition oppressive, not only of all the possibilities it excludes, but of women,
who are made to pay the price of that exclusion, through the conversion of the
inadequacy and incompleteness that is a feature of the human condition into a
feature of being a woman, then it must be changed. According to Cornell, here
following Derrida, we must deconstruct sexual difference as it is given to us to
ensure that we remain forever open to all the possibilities that our condition as

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