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  • Challenging Liberalism: Feminism as Political Critique
  • Samantha Brennan (bio)
Challenging Liberalism: Feminism as Political Critique. By Lisa H. Schwartzman . University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.

How do the twin methodological approaches of individualism and abstraction turn liberalism from being feminism's dear friend to being feminism's worst enemy? That's the main question pursued by Lisa Schwartzman in this very sensible book. Challenging Liberalism is the most satisfying account of feminism's attempt to come to terms with liberalism that I have read. And if it at times seems dry, in the way that the moderate truth is often less exciting than extreme, controversial positions, I think that's a small price to pay for the sanity of Schwartzman's approach. It turns out, on Schwartzman's feminist account, that liberalism is neither our savior nor our enemy. She does not issue a rallying cry for liberalism (see Martha Nussbaum or Onora O'Neill for that) but she also does not reject liberalism in its entirety (see Wendy Brown and Judith Butler for that). Instead, Schwartzman carefully, calmly, and methodically evaluates liberalism from the perspective of a feminist political philosopher. She rescues what can be rescued, revises what needs revising, rejects what must be rejected, and in the end, emerges with a feminist liberalism worth championing.

The main question with which Schwartzman's begins is, How can basic liberal concepts—rights, equality, and privacy—have such liberatory potential and at the same time play a central role in arguments for policies and practices that oppress women? The right to privacy, for example, is used to defend women's rights to reproductive freedom while at the same time shielding the family from moral and political investigation. Yet it is inside the family, inside the private realm, where some women experience domestic violence and where many more women do an unfair share of the domestic labor. Why do liberal concepts have this double-edged potential to help and harm women? Schwartzman argues that it is not merely that liberal concepts are indeterminate (although she thinks they are that as well). Rather, the fault lies at the door of two key [End Page 220] methodological tools associated with liberal political philosophy, namely individualism and abstraction. If feminists properly understand the dangers of abstraction and individualism, then it seems we can have the advantages of liberalism's positive features without the worst of its conservative tendencies.

Part 1 of the book examines the feminist critique of liberalism. Here, Schwartzman focuses on the work of John Rawls and Andrea Dworkin and their feminist critics. Part 2 deals with abstraction, ideals, and feminist methodologies; Schwartzman discusses the work of Onora O'Neill, Martha Nussbaum, Susan Babbitt, and Elizabeth Anderson. Part 3 critically assesses the feminist postmodern case against liberalism as argued by Wendy Brown and Judith Butler. A concluding chapter presents a feminist approach to political theorizing. I think the most original and exciting work is to be found in Part 2 and in the concluding chapter, but before turning to Schwartzman's discussion of feminism and methodology, I want to briefly review her arguments against liberal political theory.

What's wrong with standard liberal political theory? Abstraction and individualism are central to the methodology of liberal political philosophy. On Schwartzman's view, they are also responsible for the ways in which liberalism goes wrong. Liberals think of this framework as neutral, but Schwartzman shows that liberalism is not in fact neutral and that its methodology carries along with it key patriarchal assumptions. From these assumptions then patriarchal conclusions follow but feminists need not dismiss liberalism completely. Instead, Schwartzman urges us to develop feminist versions of liberalism. We can use some concepts central to liberalism—such as rights, equality, and freedom—if we do so with an awareness of political and social arrangements that oppress women and enforce gender hierarchies. We can think of this feminist approach in contrast to feminist revisionings of traditional liberal concepts such as rights and autonomy. Relational accounts of rights and autonomy retool the end product of liberal political theory using the insights of feminist political philosophy. Schwartzman isn't opposed to such approaches, but she thinks...