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  • The Subject of Liberty: Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom, and: The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era
  • Susan Hekman (bio)
The Subject of Liberty: Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom by Nancy Hirschmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era by Seyla Benhabib (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Nancy Hirschmann has written an impressive and important book. It constitutes a significant contribution to feminist theory, political philosophy, and discussions of social construction. Her subject is itself impressive. Freedom is, as Hirschmann notes, "the most important political concept in modern and Enlightenment political theory" (209). Taking on a subject of this magnitude is a daunting task, but Hirschmann meets the challenge admirably. Her analysis is both broad and deep, encompassing the history of political theory as well as the contemporary experiences of women. Her goal, however, is not just to assess the literature on freedom, as difficult as that is, but also to argue that it is inadequate and to suggest an alternative. Her thesis is that "a gendered perspective on freedom that puts the often invisible and excluded aspects of women's experience at its center can demonstrate the inadequacy of dominant theoretical conceptions of freedom" (ix).

The way in which Hirschmann approaches her topic is equally impressive. Her strategy is to embrace opposing discourses in the literature she analyses and integrate them into a new theoretical apparatus. This is a controversial strategy that produces a unique theoretical position. The first set of discourses she employs is the distinction that frames most discussions of freedom in political philosophy: Isaiah Berlin's definition of positive and negative liberty. Hirschmann argues that we need not decide between these two conceptions or even reject them entirely, but, rather, that we (she) can integrate aspects of both conceptions into a more complete theory of freedom. In this instance and throughout the book Hirschmann adopts a both/and rather than an either/or approach to theoretical issues. Here she argues that some aspects of both negative and positive liberty theory are correct, others inadequate. Her goal is to integrate the correct elements into a better understanding of freedom and, particularly, one that can accommodate the experiences of women.

The second set of discourses that Hirschmann approaches from this perspective is that of social construction. Central to Hirschmann's analysis of freedom [End Page 190] is her assertion that people are produced by social formations, not just limited by them. In her analysis of how this production operates Hirschmann defines what she calls three "levels" of social construction: the ideological misrepresentation of reality, materialization, and the discursive construction of social meaning. These "levels" represent approaches to social construction that are at the heart of some of the most contentious issues in contemporary feminism. Hirschmann's attempt to integrate these theories into a single approach will undoubtedly offend some of the proponents of these theories. The most controversial aspect of her thesis is her claim that there is much overlap between the emphasis on discourse found in the work of theorists such as Foucault and Butler and the emphasis on the material found in the work of theorists such as MacKinnon. Hirschmann argues that there is a common ground between these opposing theories. As she puts it, "That we are socially constructed does not mean that what is constructed is not real" (210).

The third area in which Hirschmann takes a both/and approach is one that she does not explicitly discuss but is nonetheless important: the theoretical/empirical distinction. In the discipline of political science, there are those who do theory and those who do empirical analysis and the gap between the two is rarely bridged. One of the great virtues of Hirschmann's work is that she does both. She develops a sophisticated theoretical apparatus that she then uses to analyze the experiences of women in three areas: domestic violence, welfare, and veiling. The result is a highly nuanced and insightful analysis of these phenomena that effectively unites the theoretical and the empirical.

It is in her in-depth analyses of these three areas of women's...


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pp. 190-194
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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