- Women and Liberty 1600–1800: Philosophical Essays ed. by Jacqueline Broad, Karen Detlefsen
This book, comprised of thirteen essays and an introduction by the editors, is an exploration of the concept of liberty—moral and political (part 1), theological and metaphysical (part 2)—in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The topic in itself is interesting, raising the question of the extent to which moral and political liberty are related to metaphysical liberty. With the possible exception of Catherine Cockburn (1679–1749), these types of liberty seem harder to separate in the centuries under discussion than they would be now. This could be because moral and political liberty were more of an omnipresent concern to philosophers generally then than they are now, but it is also relevant that all but one of the philosophers discussed in the volume are women. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women were more likely than men to be deprived of liberty, not just through the accidents of politics—war, life under a tyrant—or luck—being born to poor or enslaved parents—but because women were systematically denied liberty regardless of their social status. This means that women philosophers’ writings on liberty have a particular poignancy as well as a distinct epistemic value and authority. Margaret Cavendish (1723?–1773), for instance, has a different and perhaps richer understanding than does Thomas Hobbes of what counts as an external constraint (153).
What is truly striking about this collection is not only the variety of perspectives on liberty expressed by the women of the period in their own arguments and theories, but also the different interpretations that contemporary contributors give to those expressions. For instance, Mary Astell (1666–1731) favored a sort of internal freedom that consisted in mastering one’s own unruly passions and developing one’s reason. But how did this affect her view of women’s lack of external freedom? Broad (chapter 4) argues that the internal affected the external to some extent when women were successful in building internal lives that helped them bear their external ones: if it helped them make decisions that would minimize their loss of freedom (e.g. to remain unwed, as Gabrielle Suchon [1632–1703] also recommended), or if it softened their tyrants—husbands—by helping them to become more reasonable. But Alice Sowaal (chapter 11) interprets Astell rather differently, arguing that, for Astell, internal freedom is sufficient and nullifies the evil of external tyranny; it is achieved not just through the cultivation of reason, but with the help of the love of God; and women who become internally free are like Christian martyrs, able to face external evils with joy and love. In contrast to both readings of Astell, Émilie du Châtelet (1706–1749) defines free will as a causal capacity, so that freedom cannot be simply an internal condition, but must include a capacity to act.
Another thing to note is that this collection shows a marked development between the discourse of seventeenth-century women, still very much tied to the institution of marriage and having to make the best of it, to the more political discourse of late eighteenth-century [End Page 166] philosophers, Catharine Macaulay (1731–1791), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), and Sophie de Grouchy (1764–1822), who were engaged in efforts at reform that were centered on liberty: it may have seemed to them that they themselves might be liberated through reform. Moreover, while Mary Astell and her contemporaries predicate their arguments about liberty on the idea that women have equal rational capacity to men, François Poulain de la Barre (1648–1723), for instance, had to assert and defend such equality before he could begin to argue for liberty through the development of reason. All this would make for a nice and optimistic account of the historical development of women’s freedom and the way in which it became gradually more accepted, if it were not for a chilling passage from Benjamin Constant, written at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which Broad and...