Challenging Liberalism

Challenging Liberalism: Feminism as Political Critique

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Challenging Liberalism
    Book Description:

    Questions about the relevance and value of various liberal concepts are at the heart of important debates among feminist philosophers and social theorists. Although many feminists invoke concepts such as rights, equality, autonomy, and freedom in arguments for liberation, some attempt to avoid them, noting that they can also reinforce and perpetuate oppressive social structures. In Challenging Liberalism Schwartzman explores the reasons why concepts such as rights and equality can sometimes reinforce oppression. She argues that certain forms of abstraction and individualism are central to liberal methodology and that these give rise to a number of problems. Drawing on the work of feminist moral, political, and legal theorists, she constructs an approach that employs these concepts, while viewing them from within a critique of social relations of power.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05460-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    The ideals and concepts of liberalism have been used in feminist struggles for liberation throughout recent history. From the time of the women’s suffrage movement to the more recent battles over abortion, women have formulated their demands in terms of equality, autonomy, and individual rights. Although numerous feminists have demonstrated their value, liberal concepts can work to undermine women’s interests, reinforcing not only sexism, but also racism, classism, and other forms of oppression. Examples of this include cases where men have used the “right to privacy” to argue that the state should not interfere in situations of domestic violence and...

  5. Part One: A Feminist Critique of Liberalism
    • 1 Individualism, Oppression, and Liberal Rights Theory
      (pp. 15-36)

      In recent years, a number of feminist scholars and activists have examined the function of rights in liberal political theory and have raised questions about how rights should be defined and understood.¹ Some claim that although rights can be used in arguments for women’s equality, they can also function to uphold the power of privileged groups. For instance, inPornography and Civil Rights, Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin point out that rather than winning equality for oppressed minorities, rights often function in ways that uphold current power structures: “Those who have power over others tend to call their power ‘rights.’...

    • 2 Abstract Ideals and Social Inequality: Dworkin’s Equality of Resources
      (pp. 37-54)

      Although political philosophers, feminists, and ethical theorists often employ abstract ideals to argue for social change, these ideals can also work to support and perpetuate hierarchical relations of social, political, and economic power. In the previous chapter, I demonstrated how liberal rights theory can function in support of such hierarchies and argued that this problem relates to a number of assumptions about individuals that are often embedded in liberal theory. In Chapters 2 and 3, I consider the issue of abstraction in liberal theory by focusing particular attention on the abstract ideals put forth by Ronald Dworkin (in Chapter 2)...

    • 3 Rawlsian Abstraction and the Social Position of Women
      (pp. 55-74)

      Whereas Dworkin’s writings have not attracted much attention from feminists, the work of John Rawls has been the subject of considerable feminist debate.¹ In fact, some claim that a reformulated version of Rawls’s theory of justice holds great potential for feminism. Unlike many liberal theorists who focus narrowly on equalizing the resources or the welfare of individuals and place a great deal of emphasis on individual preferences, Rawls purports to concern himself with the justice of society’s “basic structure,” which makes his theory appealing to feminists seeking to rectify inequalities in society’s institutions and structures of power.

      In this chapter,...

  6. Part Two: Abstraction, Ideals, and Feminist Methodologies
    • 4 Idealization, Abstraction, and the Use of Ideals in Feminist Critique
      (pp. 77-94)

      In Chapters 2 and 3, we have seen that both Rawls and Dworkin construct abstract ideals in order to develop and defend their theories of justice and equality and that various problems arise from their attempted abstraction. As feminists, critical race scholars, and other social justice theorists have illustrated, the social context is characterized by various hierarchies, such as those of gender, race, sexuality, and class, and individual agents are affected by these structures in powerful but often invisible ways. Because the effects of oppression can be deep seated and yet invisible, attempts to simply “abstract” from all knowledge about...

    • 5 Feminism as an Alternative Methodology
      (pp. 95-110)

      In recent years, a number of feminist liberals have asserted that various aspects of liberalism can be adapted to feminist ends. In Chapter 3, I examined Okin’s contention that, with some modification, Rawls’s original position can yield feminist conclusions, and in Chapter 4 I considered O’Neill’s arguments that the problems with liberal theory arise only with idealization, and not with abstraction, which she suggests is central to pursuing gender and global justice. I begin this chapter by considering the recent writings of another philosopher who is both a feminist and a liberal, Martha Nussbaum. Unlike Okin and O’Neill, Nussbaum is...

  7. Part Three: Feminist Postmodernism:: An Alternative to Liberalism?
    • 6 Politicized Identity, Women’s Experience, and the Law
      (pp. 113-132)

      In previous chapters, I drew on the work of Catharine MacKinnon, Susan Babbitt, Elizabeth Anderson, and Iris Marion Young to argue that certain forms of feminist theory and practice offer an alternative to both the abstraction and the individualism of liberalism. I suggested that without entirely dismissing the concepts of rights, equality, and justice, feminists can recognize that such concepts reinforce male power but that they must be redefined from a feminist perspective. Through projects of redefining these concepts and working to implement them through feminist theory and activism, women can bring about changes in social institutions and practices.


    • 7 Speech, Authority, and Social Context
      (pp. 133-158)

      In Chapter 6, in examining Wendy Brown’s postmodern critique of liberal rights, I argued that Brown does not offer any real alternative to liberalism’s abstraction. Like the liberal theorists whom she criticizes, Brown fails to engage in concrete analyses of social relations of power. In this chapter, I treat the work of another postmodern feminist, Judith Butler, whose views are in many ways similar to Brown’s, and whose work suffers from a number of similar problems.

      Before delving into a careful analysis of how Butler’s writings on hate speech relate to my critique of liberalism, I want to note the...

  8. Conclusion: Toward a Feminist Approach to Political Theorizing
    (pp. 159-174)

    In the preceding two chapters, I have illustrated how attempts to reject legal discourse, normative concepts, and moral critique can end up reinforcing the status quo. Although Butler and Brown do not intend to convey support for current arrangements of power, their plan to bring about change through individual acts of resistance will be ineffective without larger cultural, political, and economic movements for social change. Advocating more systemic and wide-scale resistance, however, requires a critical analysis of social power structures. In fact, such an analysis is a crucial component of normative criticism: without it, one cannot provide an account of...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 175-194)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 195-204)
  11. Index
    (pp. 205-210)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 211-211)