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  • Introduction
  • Nancy J. Hirschmann (bio)

The basic approach of my book is to take three practical issues relating to women's lives—domestic violence, welfare, and Islamic veiling—and use them to critically assess dominant political theories of freedom. Right off the bat, of course, there is a potential problem of disciplinary divergence, for philosophers seem to take the compatibilism issue as central to the question of freedom, whereas political theorists tend to take negative and positive liberty as central. That is what I start with, because I think that Berlin's typology highlights some central elements that characterize most theories of freedom, pertaining to the structure of choice and desire (Berlin 1969). I articulate some of those issues in both contemporary and canonical theory in the first two chapters of the book, and I argue that the categories are overdrawn and simplistic and that the effort to retain them in contemporary thought is problematized when we see that the canonical theorists on which they are based actually deployed elements of both models. But what that tells us, I posit, is that the models give us important ideas about different aspects of freedom that illuminate the key questions of choice and desire. I then turn to feminism as a critical lens for getting us to think in a more complicated way about these issues.

Most theories of freedom—positive and negative alike—agree that freedom is about choice, about doing what I want. But what does it mean to make a choice? What does it mean to want something? How do I know that what I think I want is really what I want? And who is this "me" who is doing the wanting and the choosing? Choice is a complex process, involving negotiation of external factors that negative liberty focuses on, and internal factors that [End Page 178] it tends to ignore. But it also involves contextual factors that make certain options available and not others, that influence us to want certain things and not others, and that make us understand choice-making and even ourselves in certain ways, and not others.

I argue that looking at women's lives and experiences helps us see this construction and helps point us in new directions for understanding freedom. Since social constructivism is a key part of the book that both commentators raise questions about, I will focus on that here to fill in for those who have not read the book what my respondents are analyzing. I will do that by explaining the theory in terms of the book's chapter on welfare, to provide an idea of the kinds of analysis I engage in in the three issue-oriented chapters and to facilitate the explanation of social constructivism.

I start by arguing that what many feminists consider "social construction" is actually only one part of it; and that by leaving it at this one part, we distort what really goes on. I call this first part ideology: claims about women that are for the most part artificial, driven by claims that structure power relations. For instance, consider the idea that women on welfare are there because they want something for nothing; that they run out and get pregnant so they can become wealthy without working; that they are lazy and irresponsible; and that they are cheating honest taxpaying citizens. Those beliefs fueled welfare reform in the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act. But these claims distort, simplify, and reduce women's experiences. As the Institute for Women's Policy Research has shown through quantitative studies of welfare recipients, most are on it for two years or less; they work for wages; they had their children well before being on welfare, which was instead precipitated by some other crisis such as divorce or domestic abuse; their rates of fertility are no higher than women not receiving welfare; and they tend to be honest, if for no other reason than that they fear state scrutiny (Hartmann and Yi 2001). And as many other feminists have argued, raising children is hard work that contributes social value and therefore is not easily combined with the concept of "laziness." So, the idea of the so-called...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2001
Print ISSN
0887-5367
Pages
pp. 178-181
Launched on MUSE
2006-09-14
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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