Hypatia 14.2 (1999) 136-143
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Reconstructing Political Theory: Feminist Perspectives. Edited by Mary Lyndon Shanley and Uma Narayan. University Park: Penn State Press, 1997.
Edited volumes do not always follow through on the promise of conceptual coherence hinted at in the title or introduction; Reconstructing Political Theory: Feminist Perspectives (Shanley and Narayan 1997) does. The purpose of the volume is both to reexamine traditional political concepts and to do further analysis of concepts that feminism has introduced as political. Both tasks are crucial to "reshaping political theory in a direction that is more fully responsive to women's interests, concerns and problems" (1997, xi). The editors, Mary Lyndon Shanley and Uma Narayan, begin by introducing three general themes that the collection addresses: how conceptions of dependency and independence structure political life; how to rethink the public/private distinction with attention to the manifold meanings and manifestations of both public and private; and how power, empowerment, and participation need to be understood in a context of oppression. Although the introduction provisionally groups individual essays under a particular theme, readers will discern links across the themes in nearly all the essays, as they address specific issues of citizenship, the state, families, and violence against women.
The first four essays in the volume are simply excellent, and nicely linked. The editors begin with Elizabeth Kiss's rich and discerning analysis of "rights talk" in feminism. Kiss distinguishes between feminist arguments that rights [End Page 136] are conceptually inadequate and feminist concerns that rights talk as a strategy may in practice disadvantage women. She guides the reader through these various feminist contentions, and although she of course engages with the important criticisms theorists make of "care ethics," she never reduces the issues at hand to simply justice versus care. Kiss's acumen gives us a much more complex (and clear) vision of the multiple problems and approaches (sometimes overlapping, sometimes distinct) that are being worked out through debates about rights talk. The breadth of this understanding is never a result of the author sacrificing nuance; the analysis is subtle and fair, and in no way is it merely a review of "the literature" (although I have every intention of recommending it to graduate students as such!). What strikes me as exemplary is the form of Kiss's critical evaluation of the potential of rights talk. She does not indulge in the predictable concluding gesture at something vaguely in between a defense of rights and a rejection of rights talk; she articulates carefully and concretely her argument that the specific forms that gender inequality takes requires feminism to develop a broad range of interlinked strategies: careful but not necessarily reluctant rights-oriented legal strategies, and more informal and diffuse forms of social education.
Like Kiss, Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon exemplify a mode of analysis that brings into focus the interaction among social context, cultural change, and formal political institutions, and shows how this interaction is central to the production of meaning and material effects. In their genealogy of the meaning of dependency, Fraser and Gordon identify four historical "registers" of dependency: in economic terms, as a social and legal relation, as political subjection, and as a moral/psychological condition. Contemporary discourse about welfare dependency stresses the latter and merges it with previous meanings: "Thus postindustrial culture has called up a new personification of dependency: the Black, unmarried, teenaged, welfare-dependent mother. This image has usurped the symbolic space previously occupied by the housewife, the pauper, the native, and the slave, while absorbing and condensing their connotations. . . the new stereotype partakes of virtually every quality that has been coded historically as antithetical to independence" (1997, 39). In this discourse, self-sufficiency is the sign of the fully mature citizen; dependency and vulnerability are pathological. Fraser and Gordon conclude by noting "oppositional discourses" about dependency, e.g., that of welfare activists. This is a crucial step, and what those of us interested in the production of meaning need to see more of. If we understand social meaning as a result of discursive struggle, we need to understand both the dominant...