MacKinnon awarded American Philosophical Society's jurisprudence prize, elected to membership

By Bob Needham
Michigan Law

University of Michigan Law School Professor Catharine A. MacKinnon received two honors from the American Philosophical Society this spring. 

MacKinnon, the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law, received the society’s Henry M. Phillips Prize in Jurisprudence. She became only the 27th winner in the 134-year history of the prize, which recognizes outstanding lifetime contributions to the field of jurisprudence and important publications that illustrate that accomplishment. 

MacKinnon also was elected to membership in the society, which is known as the oldest learned society in the United States. Membership honors extraordinary accomplishments in a variety of disciplines, including the sciences, humanities, and public service. MacKinnon was among 27 members elected this year. 

The formal citation for the Phillips Prize reads, “In recognition of her intellectual and political leadership in international law, constitutional law, political and legal theory, and jurisprudence, and in particular her pioneering work on gender equality, sexual abuse, and sexual exploitation, including sexual harassment, rape, prostitution, sex trafficking, and pornography, and her effective framing of such harms as civil rights violations in the United States, in other countries, and in international law, bringing recognition and transformation in theory and practice.”

The citation was presented at a spring ceremony by legal journalist Linda Greenhouse,  who added, “Her pioneering book published in 1979, Sexual Harassment of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, created the legal claim for sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other prohibitions of sex discrimination with enduring consequences for workplaces. She framed sexual harassment as sex discrimination in education under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which transformed practices and procedures in schools, colleges, and universities. She also worked to change legal treatment of pornography; crafted litigation and legislative strategies to treat legal claims of rape as genocidal acts; and brought the perspective of sex inequality and sexual violence to prostitution and sex trafficking. Her thorough attention to power relationships draws on and contributes to epistemology, political theory, legal theory, and political and legal practices, with significant influences on laws, institutions, and the lives of many.”

In accepting the prize, MacKinnon said, “I am grateful for your understanding that a vision of equality, critical of the realities of the dominance of men and subordination of women, is philosophy. Thank you for knowing that practicing law for change in the real world for survivors of sexual violation counts as jurisprudence. And thank you for lifting up someone whose method is to listen to people designated to be silenced and to act on what they say, someone made ‘controversial’ who acts on seeing and saying what power doesn’t want seen and said.

“Thank you especially for seeing through all the lies about my work. And thank you to all my angels out there, which is why I am able to be here. I hope that giving this prize to me inspires young people to choose meaningful work over the lures of conventional career advancement and encourages them to take real risks to their self-interest and not be corrupted by dangled success. And I hope that many more women, nonbinary people, trans people, and people of color will be given this high honor and this award in the years to come.”

MacKinnon joins two other Michigan Law professors among the elected members of the American Philosophical Society: Matthew L.M. Fletcher, ’97, the Harry Burns Hutchins Collegiate Professor of Law, and Bruce Frier, the John and Teresa D'Arms Distinguished University Professor of Classics and Roman Law. 

The American Philosophical Society was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin for the purpose of “promoting useful knowledge.” In addition to honoring scholars and practitioners, the society sponsors grants and fellowships, lectures, publications, prizes, exhibitions, and public education. It also houses a research library of 13 million manuscripts and other collections.