McClintock was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, moving to South Africa as a child, where she became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. She began her university studies at theUniversity of Cape Town, completing a B.A. (Hons.) in English, before traveling to England, where she earned a M.Phil. in Linguistics at the University of Cambridge. She completed a Ph.D. in English Literature from Columbia University, where she subsequently became an Associate Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies, teaching in both the Department of English and the Institute of African Studies. She also held a Visiting Professorship at New York University before moving to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she is currently the Simone de Beauvoir Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies.
McClintock is best known for her book, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. McClintock has also written short biographies of Olive Schreiner and Simone de Beauvoir and a monograph on madness, sexuality and colonialism called Double Crossings. She also co-edited (with Ella Shohat and Aamir Mufti) a collection called Dangerous Liaisons, as well as two special journal issues: one on sex work, and one on race and queer theory. McClintock has written over 50 articles and reviews, and has given over 160 keynote addresses and lectures in the US and abroad, on sexuality, race, gender, nationalism, imperialism,photography, visual culture, and contemporary culture in a wide range of prominent venues and journals, including Critical Inquiry, Transition, Social Text, New Formations, Feminist Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Village Voice, and The Women’s Review of Books, among others. Her articles and essays have been widely reprinted and anthologized both in the US and internationally.
McClintock is currently completing three books: a creative non-fiction book Skin Hunger: A Chronicle of Sex, Desire and Money Jonathan Cape, Planet of Intimate Tresspass. Essays on Sexuality and Power in a Global Era, Routledge and an anthology The Sex Work Reader Vintage. She is currently working on a new book called Paranoid Empire: Specters Beyond Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, Duke University Press.
McClintock's writings have been widely acclaimed and anthologized. She has received numerous awards, including two prestigious MacArthur-SSRC Fellowships and numerous creative writing fellowships, including Artist Residency Fellowships at the MacDowell, Yaddo, Blue Mountain, VCCA and Dorland writing colonies. Her work has been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Japanese, Taiwanese and Madarin.